Armed with ten years’ experience playing professionally in countries as diverse as Argentina, China PR, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Paraguay and Korea Republic, Penarol’s Juan Manuel Olivera knows more than most the fleeting nature of footballing success. All of which makes the 29-year-old forward determined to help Los Carboneros, who he joined in early 2011, to the sixth Copa Libertadores crown in their illustrious history.
Standing in their way are at least 90 minutes of action plus, of course, Santos, who will be buoyed by taking a 0-0 draw away from last week’s final, first leg in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. That said, Olivera and Co were also held at home by another Brazilian outfit, International, in the first leg of their last-16 tie – only for El Mirasol to dump out the holders thanks to a 2-1 win in the return in Porto Alegre.
“Can we pull that off again? Of course we can!” the player nicknamed Palote told FIFA.com. “Santos aren’t any better or worse than we expected. Yes, they created a few chances against us and that’s only natural because they’ve got class players, who are particularly dangerous with space to run into.
"But we deserve credit for keeping them as quiet as we did, it’s just a shame that we couldn’t put away the three or four chances we had. You don’t win games on merit though, you win them with goals, and that’s where we fell short.”
With five strikes so far, Olivera is his team’s top scorer in this year’s Libertadores, though the imposing 1.91m Uruguayan has failed to find the net in his last four matches in the competition. What's more, his involvement in the return leg in Brazil has been in some doubt following a knock to his right shoulder that forced his withdrawal eight minutes from the end of the first leg.
“Fortunately it didn’t cause an injury and the pain’s gradually eased off," he said. "I’m really keen to play, because finals don’t come around every day. But if there’s a team-mate who’s in better shape than me to play, you have to be willing to step aside and cheer the lads on from the sidelines.”
Playing the second leg of a Libertadores tie away from home is now a familiar scenario for Penarol, who, as well as knocking out Inter, also eliminated Chile’s Universidad Catolica and Argentinian Clausura 2011 champions Velez Sarsfield after return matches on foreign soil.
“I think that’s why people have got so fond of this group of players,” said Olivera. “It’s thanks to the way we’ve gone and got the results we needed away from home, in a way that’s been in keeping with the club’s history.”
'We can win in Brazil'
Olivera, who emerged from the famed youth ranks of Penarol’s domestic rivals Danubio back in 2001, also underlined the fact that squad morale has not been affected by any of the media criticism received after the goalless stalemate in the Centenario: “Of course we’ve heard what’s been said, but we couldn’t care less because it comes from people outside the club. We’re pleased to have got this far and we know exactly what’s at stake. That’s the only thing that matters to us.
“Santos are going to take the game to us, they’re going to try to pin us back in our own area right from the off,” continued the player, for whom Libertadores success would be his first trophy with a Uruguayan club. “If we play a similar game to the one we did in Uruguay and make the most of the extra spaces they’re going to give us, we’ve got a very good chance of beating them. The key is being clinical up front.”
And despite this responsibility falling mainly on the shoulders of Olivera and his fellow attackers, he is determined not to be carried away by the occasion. “You dream of lifting the Copa right from the off, but when it all started this all seemed so far away,” he said as the conversation drew to a close.
“Now, though, it’s right there in front of us, but we mustn’t let ourselves get distracted by thoughts of glory. There’s still one step left to take before we can pull this off, and we’ll be doing everything in our power to do that in Brazil.”