It is now or never for the four remaining sides in
this year's Copa Libertadores de America. This Wednesday and
Thursday, Gremio, Santos, Boca Juniors and Cucuta Deportivo play
their semi-final, second legs in Brazil and Argentina, with a place
in the final of South America's premier club competition up for
grabs.After first leg wins last week, Gremio and Cucuta
appear to have the upper hand, but the experience and Copa
Libertadores pedigree of their esteemed rivals suggest there is
still all to play for this week.
Read on as FIFA.com gives you the rundown on the two ties, as the continental title, not to mention a place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007, draw ever nearer.
Santos out to rewrite the script
The recently-crowned Paulista state champions came into the semi-finals hoping to extend their unbeaten run in this year's Copa Libertadores. However, that impressive statistic came to an end at the most inopportune moment for Vanderlei Luxemburgo's side when they crashed to a 2-0 first leg defeat away to Gremio.
Now O Peixe will need an equally emphatic victory if they are to stop the resolute Tricolor Gaúcho in theirtracks and give themselves a shot at a third continental crown."They (Gremio) ought to know they will be coming to a packed stadium, where the crowd will be willing us to win. That's not a comfortable situation for any visiting side. We've already shown that we can turn ties around here, like in the final of the Paulistao (Paulista State Championship), and so I'm confident we can do it again," said Luxemburgo.
That said, Gremio will not be lacking in motivation when they arrive at the Vila Belmiro. The 1983 Copa Libertadores winners are desperate to go all the way this year and thus take over the mantle of continental champions from their neighbours and arch-rivals Internacional."We know it will be a difficult fixture and that we haven't qualified yet, but I'd be lying if I said the two-goal lead hadn't helped our preparations," said the Porto Alegre outfit's coach Mano Menezes.
Nor is the visiting side's confidence unfounded. Thanks to their clean sheet in the home leg, a goal from Gremio at the Vila Belmiro would require Ze Roberto and company to score four to go through. A tall order, even if Santos have been the highest scorers in this year's tournament.
Cucuta threaten Boca's ambition
Who could have predicted that Cucuta Deportivo, a club who only two seasons ago were playing in the Colombian second division, would now be just 90 minutes away from the Copa Libertadores final in this their debut appearance? Of course, if they are to achieve that, they will need to preserve their 3-1 first leg lead over Boca Juniors in the fiercely intimidating atmosphere of the Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires.
Five-time winners of the continental championship, the Xeneizes would love to see their prodigal son Juan Roman Riquelme help them to title number five. If Boca are to go through, then the experience of the veteran playmaker will be vital, as will the crowd at the Bombonera. For his part, coach Miguel Angel Russo is confident, saying: "We'll turn this tie around and go through."
Meanwhile, in the Cucuta camp, all eyes have been on Panamanian striker Blas Perez, the second highest scorer in this year's competition and scorer of two goals in last week's first leg. Sadly for the Colombians, the player is currently with his national team as they prepare for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup and it appears increasingly unlikely that he will be given permission to travel and play in Argentina on Thursday.
"We haven't qualified for anything yet, but we believe that with our type of football we can deny Boca possession and play our game. What we've done is historic, but we want to achieve even more," says coach Jorge Bernal, who has one little bit of history on his side going into the tie. The last time the Xeneizes had to face Colombian opposition in the latter stages of this tournament, they came up short, famously losing the 2004 Copa Libertadores final to Once Caldas.
Fixtures this week
Santos (BRA) - Gremio (BRA)
Boca Juniors (ARG) - Cucuta Deportivo (COL)