At last the wait is over. Tonight in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the winner of the 48th edition of the Copa Libertadores de America will finally be revealed. For the victors, it is not just the continental crown that is at stake, but the right to represent their confederation at this year's FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007 in December.
As fate would have it, the destination of the fabled Copa
Libertadores trophy will be decided in Porto Alegre for the second
year running. Twelve months ago it was Internacional who kept the
trophy in Brazil, but on this occasion it is their arch-rivals
Gremio who are gunning for glory as they look to reel in the
five-time winners Boca Juniors.
The mood in the two camps ahead of tonight's showdown could not be more contrasting. Miguel Angel Russo's side have the advantage of a of 3-0 cushion from the first leg, while Mano Menezes's Gaúchos know they face an uphill struggle to overturn what, on the face of it, looks like an almost-unassailable lead. That said, the Brazilian side will take some comfort from the fact that the away-goals rule will not apply should the teams be level on aggregate at the end of the 180 minutes.
A difficult, but not impossible task
For the Gremio players and fans, this final is especially significant given that the reigning Libertodores champions are Internacional, and there will be no lack of motivation in the home camp as they look to return to the summit of continental football for the first time since 1995.
Gremio's insistence that there is still all to play for is bolstered by their impressive home record in this year's competition. In their six games at the Estadio Olimpico, Menezes' charges have won five and drawn just one, scoring eight goals and conceding none in the process. Add to that the value of 40,000 vociferous fans roaring their heroes on, and you see why the 1983 and 1995 champions feel a third title is not beyond them.
"This final is not over yet. Of course, a three-goal deficit is a considerable one, but we're banking on our ability and the impetus the fans will give us to be able to turn the game round, just as we did against Sao Paulo," said the versatile Paraguayan Diego Gavilan.
The value of experience
Boca Juniors, who will be going for their sixth Copa Libertadores crown, took control of the first leg with goals from Rodrigo Palacio, Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Ledesma. However, they will be taking nothing for granted in Porto Alegre given their poor performances on the road in this campaign - four defeats, one draw and just one win.
The Xeneixes will draw confidence from the squad's vast experience and from having regularly tasted continental glory in recent years, often from situations much less favourable than the present one. On this occasion, with a 3-0 lead going into the game, a great many Boca fans are already picturing their team in Japan this December.
Russo, for his part, is confident but not getting carried away: "We need to go there and play well if we want to maintain our advantage for the full ninety minutes. We cannot concern ourselves with all the external factors, the staff and organisers will look after that."