The final of the 52nd edition of the Copa Libertadores pits continental heavyweights Penarol and Santos together, with the former set to host tonight's first leg at Montevideo’s mythical Estadio Centenario. It is a mouth-watering meeting of a duo whose Libertadores pedigree is unquestionable, having between them won the first four editions of the competition.
Penarol-Santos, Wednesday 15 June, 21.50 (local time), Estadio Centenario, Montevideo
A final between Penarol and Santos is a genuine continental classic, with five-time champions Penarol winning the first two editions of the Libertadores and coming close to taking the third – only to be denied by Pele’s Santos in the 1962 decider. The Brazilian outfit lifted the trophy for the second and to date last time the following year, a victory which underlined the pair's dominance of the tournament's early era.
Forty-nine years on from that memorable ’62 tie, El Carbonero and O Peixe are preparing to square off for the title once more. Coach Diego Aguirre’s Penarol have shown unflinching tactical discipline and the will to win that has long characterised Uruguayan sides in order to get this far, while in the first leg they will be roared on by supporters desperate to cap a remarkable campaign with the coveted crown.
In the opposing camp, a Santos side coached by the wily Muricy Ramalho will be putting their faith in exhilarating forward Neymar and a midfield capable of slowing the tempo and taking the sting out of what is sure to be a white-hot atmosphere in Montevideo. In a curious side note, the Brazilians were paid a visit by none other than Pele, while the Penarol players met with one of Uruguay’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ heroes Diego Forlan, who has promised to cheer on his boyhood club on from the stands.
Path to the final
Amid shaky starts to the competition, both teams were by no means early favourites to get this far. However, the pair showed resolve aplenty to qualify from the group stage in second place in their respective sections and have grown in confidence and poise from the last 16 onwards.
Penarol underlined the fighting spirit that has been a club trademark over the years by knocking out reigning champions Internacional, Chile’s Universidad Catolica and Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield en route to the final, despite having to play the second leg of all of those ties away from home. Santos, who only appointed Ramalho midway through the group phase, won the first leg in each of their three knockout ties before securing vital second-leg draws to edge Mexico’s America, Colombia’s Once Caldas and Paraguayan outfit Cerro Porteno.
Alejandro Martinuccio vs. Neymar
Able to rely on a solid tactical base, Penarol’s most unpredictable attacking weapon is the blistering speed of 23-year-old Argentinian forward Alejandro Martinuccio. El Carbonero’s No10 is lethal with space in front of him and has developed a fruitful partnership with Juan Manuel Olivera, the team’s five-goal top scorer.
Neymar, for his part, is rated as one of the brightest emerging talents in world football. Also his side’s leading scorer with five goals so far, the jewel in O Peixe’s crown boasts clinical finishing, devastating dribbling ability and has shouldered his team’s attacking burden as well as taking on a leadership role since an injury to key playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso.
There may be a ten-year age gap between them, but Diego Aguirre and Muricy Ramalho both share vast experience of the continental arena and a fierce determination to lift the trophy. Forty-five-year-old Uruguayan Aguirre has already savoured Libertadores glory, having scored the goal that clinched Penarol their most recent triumph against America de Cali back in 1987. Ramalho, who has yet to taste Libertadores defeat with Santos since taking charge in April, will be desperate to avoid a repeat of his 2006 final loss when coach of Sao Paulo.
280,549: The total number of tickets Penarol have sold for their home matches over the course of the Libertadores 2011 which, at an average of 46,758 per game, is the highest in the competition.
What they said
“We know that only one team can take the glory, but we’ll fight to make sure that team is Penarol. Every time I go to the club’s headquarters I see photos of the teams that won the Copa and, in 20 years’ time, I’d like to be able to come back and see this team in that gallery,” Dario Rodriguez, Penarol captain.
“Penarol are a strong team, but Santos are a great side too and we’ve got used to beating big teams. We knocked out America, who are Mexico’s richest club, Once Caldas, who are former Libertadores winners, and then we beat, who was it? Oh yes, Cerro Porteno, who have played something like 400 Libertadores matches,” Muricy Ramalho, Santos coach.