Bold Galo rewarded for Copa enterprise
© AFP

Famed for its fierce intensity, the Copa Libertadores is a trophy that often takes hard toil, grit and determination to win. Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro decided to break with that tradition this year, however, playing an enterprising brand of football from start to finish and entrusting their charge to glory to their front men.

Bristling with attacking intent and making the most of the talent at their disposal, Cuca’s side scored more than two goals per game and became the first club since River Plate in 1996 to qualify from the group phase with the best record and go on to win the famous competition.

O Galo rose to the occasion in the knockout rounds, accounting for the reigning Argentinian and Mexican league champions Newell’s Old Boys and Tijuana respectively as well as three-time Libertadores champions Sao Paulo and Olimpia. Secured on penalties after the two sides drew 2-2 on aggregate following 210 minutes of tense football, their victory over the Paraguayans in the final also secured them a berth at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 as South America’s representatives.

The champions
O Galo scored 29 goals in their 14-match campaign, an average of 2.07 goals per game. No champions have scored more since Sao Paulo struck 34 en route to the 2005 title. That tally compares more than favourably to the combined average of 20.4 goals per campaign managed by the last five winners of the competition: Corinthians, Santos, Internacional, Estudiantes and Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito.

Atletico made their attacking intent clear from the off, helping themselves to 11 goals in winning their first four games in Group 3, becoming the first side to book their place in the knockout rounds and doing so with two matches to spare.

Despite facing some big-hitting opponents from the last 16 onwards, Cuca stuck to his attacking masterplan. “We’ve got this far by playing attacking football and we’re not going to change now,” he said before their semi-final against a wily Newell’s side. “We’re going to do it our way. We won’t be playing it safe.” The reward for their courage was a maiden Libertadores triumph.

The players
Given Cuca’s commitment to attack, it was no surprise to see his strikers excel. Jo led the way with seven goals to end the competition as the top scorer, closely followed by team-mate Diego Tardelli, who finished level on six goals with Newell’s Ignacio Scocco. Evergreen magician Ronaldinho and rising young star Bernard chipped in with four goals apiece, not to mention a number of valuable assists.

For all their attacking firepower Atletico were also indebted to the goalkeeping of Victor, who played a key role in their success, crucially keeping out a very late penalty in the quarter-final tie against Tijuana, and pulling off vital stops in the semi-final and final shootouts.

Uruguayan forward Juan Manuel Salgueiro was a dominant figure for runners-up Olimpia, bringing his playmaking skills to the fore and leading the line with five goals, two of which knocked out Brazilian champions Fluminense in the last eight. Uruguay goalkeeper Martin Silva also played his part for the Paraguayans, keeping clean sheets in more than half of the games in the knockout stages. Meanwhile, the vastly experienced Maxi Rodriguez put his know-how to effective use in Newell’s impressive run and Tijuana young Ecuadorian Fidel Martinez showed that he is much more than a Neymar lookalike.

The revelations
The quarter-final line-up showed that this was no ordinary Libertadores, featuring as it did only two former winners of the trophy in Boca Juniors and Olimpia. New boys Real Garcilaso and Tijuana were the biggest surprises of all, making light of their lack of pedigree to upset some big names and put together compelling campaigns.

Founded as recently as 2009, the Peruvians exceeded expectations by emerging from the group phase and then topped that achievement by disposing of three-time Libertadores champions Nacional of Uruguay in the last 16.

Only two years their senior, the Mexicans also punched above their weight, bringing the long unbeaten run of 2012 winners Corinthians to an end and coming within an inch of knocking out the eventual champions, their fine run ending when Atletico keeper Victor kept out Duvier Riascos’ injury-time penalty in the quarters.

Colombian champions Santa Fe were another underdog to go further than expected, reaching the semi-finals more than half a century after their last run of note. In contrast, pre-tournament favourites Corinthians and Velez Sarsfield both fell by the wayside at a surprisingly early stage, exiting in the Round of 16.

Did you know?
Ronaldinho is the first player in the history of the game to win the Copa Libertadores, the UEFA Champions League, the FIFA World Cup™ and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, which he won in 2004 and 2005.

The stat  
4 - 
Atletico Mineiro’s ground-breaking campaign maintained Brazil’s recent domination of the Libertadores and provided the country with its fourth consecutive triumph in the competition. O Galo followed Corinthians, Santos and Internacional as champions, a run that eclipses the one Cruzeiro, Vasco da Gama and Palmeiras put together in winning the trophy three times in a row for Brazil between 1997 and 1999. While Brazilian clubs have featured in every final since 2005 and have won the Libertadores 17 times in all, Argentina still leads the way with 22 triumphs.

What they said
“I’ve reaped what I’ve sowed here at Atletico Mineiro. This gang is a winning team now. What with the penalties in the final and coming back from 2-0 down against Newell’s and Olimpia, they’ve become a lucky team. And today luck was on their side,” Atletico Mineiro coach Cuca.

“There are so many things going through my mind right now. I came back to Brazil for this and it was the one trophy I hadn’t won. I lot of people said I was finished, that we were just a team of renegades. I wonder what they’ve got to say now,” Atletico Mineiro midfielder Ronaldinho.

“I’m still very proud of my players but we shouldn’t have given away those goals today. We gave our all for the fans, though, and we earned the respect of everyone in Paraguay, which is important. We might not be the champions but we’re full of pride,” Olimpia coach Ever Hugo Almeida.

The podium
Winners: Atletico Mineiro*
Runners-up: Olimpia
Losing semi-finalists: Newell’s Old Boys and Santa Fe
*Qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013

Leading goalscorers
7: Jo (Atletico Mineiro)
6: Ignacio Scocco (Newell’s Old Boys), Diego Tardelli (Atletico Mineiro)
5: Braian Rodriguez (Huachipato), Fredy Bareiro and Juan Manuel Salgueiro (Olimpia), Luis Fabiano (Sao Paulo)

Leading goalscorers in recent seasons
2010: Thiago Ribeiro (Cruzeiro), 8 goals
2011: Roberto Nanni (Cerro Porteno) and Wallyson (Cruzeiro), 7
2012: Neymar (Santos) and Matias Alustiza (Deportivo Quito), 8