Neymar-inspired Santos end long wait
© AFP

Nearly half a century after Pele helped inspire Santos to consecutive Copa Libertadores conquests, the club have finally clawed their way back to the continental summit. Featuring two of planet football’s most coveted youngsters in Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso, the Brazilian outfit defeated Uruguay’s Penarol in the final to win their third Libertadores crown, having beaten the same opponents back in 1962 to win the competition for the first time.

The triumph was the 15th time a Brazilian club has claimed the trophy and cemented the legend of a third great generation of home-grown Meninos da Vila. Pele and Co were the first, but the second of these, spearheaded by Robinho and Diego, could go no further than a runners-up spot in the 2003 Libertadores.

The champions
Despite claiming the title and ending the tournament on an 11-game unbeaten run, Santos did not enjoy the best of starts. In fact they drew two and lost one of their opening three group games, saw coach Adilson Batista head for the exit door after the first of these encounters, and came mightily close to bowing out at the first hurdle.

Yet after kick-starting their campaign with a 3-2 win over Colo-Colo in their fourth group game, the arrival of coach Muricy Ramalho - shortly after leaving his post at Fluminense - gave O Peixe the impetus they needed to reach the knockout phase. The new boss quickly instilled greater resilience at the back while the team’s attacking players seemed to rediscover their joie de vivre.

Even the loss through injury of playmaker Ganso soon after the last-16 victory over Mexico’s America failed to jolt Santos's rhythm, with Colombia’s Once Caldas and Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno edged out in the quarter- and semi-finals respectively. Their confidence sky-high come the final, Santos picked up a hard-fought goalless draw in the first leg in Uruguay before sinking Penarol 2-1 in a fine second-leg performance in the Estadio Pacaembu. Just as for much of the campaign, Neymar was the star man, opening the scoring in the second period and showing the skill and maturity that make him the hottest property in Brazilian football today.

The trends
After beginning the latest edition of the elite continental competition with no fewer than six representatives, Brazilian football looked all set to continue its recent dominance of the latter stages. Yet the slide began as early as the preliminary phase, when Corinthians were stunned by Colombia’s Deportes Tolima. The five remaining teams did all qualify from the group phase, with Cruzeiro amassing 16 points from a possible 18 including two emphatic wins over 2009 champs Estudiantes.

However, that was as good as it got for A Raposa, who were dumped out in the last 16 by 2004 winners Once Caldas. Fellow Brazilian outfits Fluminense, Gremio and title holders Internacional all fell at the same stage, leaving Santos as the only bearers of the green-and-yellow flag.

The progress made by O Peixe, Once Caldas, Penarol and Velez Sarsfield, all of whom had struggled to find their feet during the group phase, underlined the vastly differing demands of round-robin and knockout football. Indeed, Santos defeated Group 3 winners America and Group 5 top dogs Cerro Porteno in the last 16 and last four respectively, while Velez beat Group 1 winners Libertad and Penarol dumped out Group 4 flyers Universidad Catolica in the quarter-finals.

The surprises
Rating a team with five Libertadores triumphs to their name as surprise packages might seem odd, but the Penarol side going into the 2011 competition did not have the same mystique as years gone by. After scraping through the group phase despite heavy defeats to Independiente and Liga de Quito, El Carbonero pulled off arguably the shock of the Round of 16 by knocking out holders Inter 3-2 over two legs. This gritty display thus laid the foundations for their run to the final, their first appearance in the fixture for 28 years.

In another intriguing trend, Paraguayan teams once again proved they are a force to be reckoned with on the Libertadores scene. Aside from semi-finalists Cerro, countrymen Libertad reached the last eight for the fourth time since 2006.

The star men
Neymar was the biggest star of this year’s Libertadores, but O Peixe’s success was by no means a one-man show. Also playing a key role was Elano, who, after rejoining his former club in January, used all his European experience to become a vital cog in coach Ramalho’s tactical set-up.

Youngster Danilo underlined his versatility and commitment in both a wing-back and central-midfield position, helping out at the back and scoring crucial goals such as the second in the final, second leg. Mention must also go to keeper Rafael, who kept Santos in the tournament with his last-16 heroics against America, and of course Ganso, such a masterful midfield string-puller when injury permitted.

In the Penarol camp, Alejandro Martinuccio and Juan Manuel Olivera were the stand-out performers. Who could forget, for example, the duo’s quick-fire strikes that silenced the fans in Internacional's Estadio Beira-Rio and knocked out the holders? So influential was he that 23-year-old Martinuccio has now become the subject of a transfer scramble, while another Argentinian of the same age, Universidad Catolica’s Lucas Pratto, caught the eye when hitting a brace in his side’s 2-1 last-16, first-leg win away to Gremio.

Yet another Argentinian working wonders abroad was Cerro Porteno’s Roberto Nanni, whose flurry of first-phase goals was enough to see him finish as joint-top scorer, though he was to find the going tougher later on. Nor must we forget two more of Nanni’s countrymen, Maximiliano Moralez and Juan Manuel Martinez, both of whom starred in Velez’s run to the semis.

Last but not least comes Cruzeiro’s Brazilian attacker Wallyson, whose seven-goal tally, six of which came in the group phase, was enough to join Nanni at the top of the scorers’ standings.

Did you know?
Corinthians’ preliminary-round exit at the hands of Deportes Tolima will be remembered as having hastened the end of Ronaldo’s career. After the Timão fans’ dream of winning the Libertadores had been crushed for another year following the 2-0 aggregate defeat, the injury-plagued Fenômeno decided it was time to hang up his boots.

The stat
147
– The number of games Penarol have won in Libertadores history, a statistic that puts them in first place in the competition’s rankings. The Uruguayan club began the tournament in third place on the list with 141, making the most of the absence of Montevideo arch-rivals Nacional (142) and Argentina’s River Plate (144) to stride into top spot overall.

What they said
“I’m a continental champion for the second time this year (Neymar also helped Brazil win the South American U-20 Championship). It’s the happiest day of my life, I’ve always dreamed about this moment. In our last few training sessions, I’ve been picturing myself lifting this trophy. Santos fans have had to wait a very long time for a celebration like this,” Neymar, Santos forward.

Positions
1. Santos*
2. Penarol
*Champions, qualify for this year’s FIFA Club World Cup

Leading scorers
1. Roberto Nanni (Cerro Porteno) and Wallyson (Cruzeiro) – 7 goals
2. Lucas Pratto (Universidad Catolica) and Neymar (Santos) – 6 goals
3. Juan Manuel Olivera (Penarol), Maximiliano Moralez (Velez Sarsfield) and Wason Renteria (Once Caldas) – 5 goals