Since the knockout phase of the Copa Libertadores began, Atletico Mineiro goalkeeper Victor has grown accustomed to hearing people say before every tie: “If Atletico can keep a clean sheet ...”
That was the case in the Round of 16, when O Galo won 2-1 at Sao Paulo, a result that meant they would go through just by keeping a clean sheet in the return match at home. Though they failed in that aim, they did score four goals to maintain their superb scoring record in the competition and secure a 6-2 aggregate win.
It was the same story in the quarter-finals against Tijuana. The Brazilian side’s 2-2 draw in Mexico meant they would advance with a goalless draw at the Estadio Independencia. As it turned out, they progressed with a 1-1 draw, though it was a very close-run thing as the visitors were awarded a stoppage-time penalty. Had Tijuana’s Colombian striker Duvier Riascos managed to convert it, O Galo would almost certainly have gone out.
Victor had other ideas, however. Diving to his right, he stuck out a leg and deflected the ball away to safety, pulling off one of the most important stops of his career and producing one of the most memorable moments of both this season’s tournament and the history of the club, which has never won the competition.
On Wednesday O Galo face another home assignment, this time against Newell’s Old Boys, with a place in the final at stake. To get there, Victor will once again have to keep the goals down to a minimum following his side’s 2-0 defeat in last week’s first leg.
Though the pressure will be on the custodian once again, he is well accustomed to that: “I got used to that an early stage,” the 30-year-old shotstopper told FIFA.com. “The fact is goalkeepers always go out on the pitch hoping to keep a clean sheet, regardless of what round of the competition it is. That’s our aim when we train during the week too. Once again, though, we’ve got to go out there and do it.”
It is an atmosphere all of its own because of everything it represents as the biggest club competition on our continent and as a route into the Club World Cup.
Cool, calm and collected despite the scale of the task he and his team-mates face against the Argentinian club, which involves them making up the two-goal deficit they conceded in Rosario last week, Victor added: “If you don’t concede, then you’re closer to your objective of winning. We’re going to be playing at home and we need to strike the right balance between attack and defence. There’s no point in just throwing everything forward.”
Victor's relaxed approach to the task of stopping and conceding goals is also a hallmark of the fearless team assembled by coach Cuca, in which the quartet formed by Ronaldinho, Diego Tardelli and FIFA Confederations Cup winners Jo and Bernard play a prominent part. In the ten matches they played on their run to the Libertadores semi-finals, the seemingly carefree Brazilian outfit let in 14 and scored 25.
Given that record, it was unusual that they were unable to pierce the Newell’s rearguard in the first leg. All the same, a repeat goalless performance is unlikely at the Independencia, where O Galo have not lost all year and where they have put together an impressive 52-game unbeaten run.
“It’s a tough task but we’ve got the strength to do it,” said the ex-Gremio man. “The support of our fans will be another factor in our favour. I believe in O Galo.”
Victor is keen to keep his focus firmly on the match itself, while playing down any talk of the special atmosphere of the Libertadores and the additional pressure that it often generates, particularly in games between teams from different countries and who know little about each other.
“The biggest hurdle is Newell’s and Newell’s alone,” he explained. “The Libertadores is a great competition to take part in. It is an atmosphere all of its own because of everything it represents as the biggest club competition on our continent and as a route into the Club World Cup.
“It’s also a big step-up for clubs, though I don’t see any of that as making our job on the pitch harder. It’s quality that wins you games, the ability to cope with tight situations and get things right, and I hope that we can do just that.”
There’s still a year to go before the World Cup and anything could happen there.
In Atletico Mineiro’s case that means making the most of their considerable goalscoring prowess and Victor’s shot-stopping ability, which he showcased with two brilliant saves in the first leg in Rosario. Galo fans will certainly be banking on him to produce the kind of stops that denied Tijuana in the last minute in the quarter-finals. Having made himself a hero, it is hard to see the Brazilian club getting past Newell’s without their inspirational keeper making a major contribution.
“I’m always going to remember that save,” he said, recalling his late heroics in the last round. “It meant so much. It was incredible. I still think about it sometimes, which is only natural really.”
What is more, that sensational stop on 31 May gave Victor’s profile a huge boost, though it came two weeks after Luiz Felipe Scolari had selected his squad for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. But in an added incentive to domestic-based performers like Victor, only first-choice Julio Cesar plays his club football outside Brazil, as the other two keepers in Felipão’s group were Botafogo’s Jefferson and Fluminense’s Diego Cavalieri.
Victor has learned the hard way not to get his hopes up, however, having travelled with A Seleção to the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 but missed out on the cut for South Africa 2010. Better to face each challenge one at a time, with his next objective open to no debate: “I want to win the Libertadores – that’s the only thing on my mind right now.
“There’s still a year to go before the World Cup and anything could happen there. So I’m totally focused on Wednesday’s game because I want us to keep going [in the Libertadores]. I want us to be champions of the Americas.”