Having taken quite similar routes to the final of the Copa Libertadores 2013, Olimpia and Atletico Mineiro square off on Wednesday night with comparable weaponry as they bid to claim the 54th edition of this prestigious event. On paper, there seems to be very little separating the sides, and not even their respective trump cards are sufficient to designate a favourite.
Take the considerable Libertadores experience and pedigree of the Paraguayan club, for example. Having won this competition three times (1979, 1990 and 2002) and finished runners-up on another three occasions, El Decano would appear to have a psychological advantage over their Brazilian opponents, who will be making their first appearance in the decider.
For all that, a quick glance at the recent Libertadores record of Brazil’s clubs – at least one team in every final since 2005, winning five of those eight editions, including the last three – would certainly give the Belo Horizonte outfit grounds for optimism.
Nor does a comparison of the pair’s respective attacks do much to separate them. Yes, coach Cuca rightfully considers O Galo’s strike force as one of its strengths, the team having netted 27 times en route to the final courtesy of four of the edition’s top scorers in Jo, Diego Tardelli, Bernard and Ronaldinho.
However, Ever Hugo Almeida’s charges are not far behind and can themselves point to 23 goals and three players of their own – Juan Manuel Salgueiro, Freddy Bareiro and Juan Carlos Ferreyra – highly ranked on the scoring chart.
Another common denominator is that both teams recorded several big wins in this year’s competition: against Arsenal and Sao Paulo, in the case of Atletico; and against Newell’s Old Boys and Deportivo Lara, in the case of Olimpia. Moreover, both clubs claimed some big-name scalps along the way and had their share of frights in the knockout rounds.
The similarities even extend to the colours of their respective strips – white and black. The pair will be battling it out to follow in the footsteps of 2012 champions Corinthians, who also share the same colours, and claim the region’s berth at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013. There may be little between the teams, but there is certainly a lot to play for.
If they remain true to the football that got them this far, Olimpia and Atletico Mineiro have what it takes to serve up one of the most attacking finals in recent times. Moreover, goals seem certain to be on the menu if the high drama and emotion of their respective semi-finals is anything to go by.
In their last-four fixture against Colombia’s Santa Fe – just as they will be hoping for on Wednesday night – Olimpia established a two-goal lead in the home leg which, despite going down 1-0 in the return and withstanding immense pressure late in the game, proved enough to see them through.
For the Belo Horizonte club, things were even more dramatic. Beaten 2-0 by Newell’s in the first leg, they then managed to win by the same scoreline at home, eventually sneaking through thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Victor in the ensuing penalty shootout.
The two sides have had their problems ahead of the final, though both have quality reinforcements at their disposal. For the Paraguayan giants, Salgueiro and Ferreyra have not fully recovered from injuries but are still expected to play, while Bareiro, who eventually renewed his contract in time for the final, is now available.
For O Galo, meanwhile, Bernard will miss out through suspension, leaving Cuca with a selection dilemma. His options include the oft-criticised Guilherme, who will not be lacking in confidence after scoring the vital second goal against Newell’s, and key defender Rever, who served his suspension during the semis.
Players to watch
Without Bernard, even greater responsibility rests on the remaining two members of O Galo’s attacking triumvirate: Jo and Diego Tardelli. The pair are the joint-leading scorers in this year's Libertadores on six, alongside Ignacio Scocco of Newell's Old Boys. The pressure on the duo will be even greater given their failure to find the net in their side’s last nine Libertadores or Brasileirao outings, stretching back to their 2-1 defeat to Coritiba on 26 May.
11 – The number of victories amassed by Olimpia in 46 games against Brazilian opposition in the Libertadores. Despite these modest numbers, Los Franjeados have proven something of a hoodoo side for their neighbours, having eliminated Brazilian sides in all three of their title-winning campaigns, most recently defeating Sao Caetano in the 2002 final. Moreover, El Decano won all their Libertadores titles after playing the first leg of the final at home. Could that be an omen for this year?
Freddy Bareiro, Olimpia forward: "People didn’t rate us very highly but we’ve shown that, with a lot of effort, toil and team work, we can achieve great things. We don’t just have a group of people here; we have a family, and no one can take away our dream of winning the Copa Libertadores. Come what may, we need to win this home leg, regardless of the score."
Diego Tardelli, Atletico Mineiro forward: “We can’t go into the match as lackadaisical as we were against Newell’s. Nor can we make mistakes because, very often, the final is decided in the first leg. With our [semi-final first-leg] defeat against Rosario, the team realised just how hard it is to overturn a 2-0 deficit. That would be a bad result to take into the return leg at home [this time too]."