The 2008/09 CONCACAF Champions League proved to be more exciting than ever, with the newly revamped tournament throwing up a host of surprises, last-minute winners and unlikely success stories.
To cap it all the competition produced an unexpected winner in Atlante. Although Mexican sides had dominated the tournament in the previous three editions, with Pachuca winning it twice and America once, few expected the Iron Colts' blend of young home-grown talents and veteran campaigners to mount a serious challenge. Nevertheless, Atlante confounded the critics with some sterling teamplay and will now go forward to the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. FIFA.com picks out the highlights of a tournament that had a little bit of everything.
When the draw for the group stage was made it was widely expected that the competition would be dominated by a select group of eight teams, with few pundits prepared to look past the Mexican quartet of Pumas UNAM, Atlante, Cruz Azul and Santos Laguna, the MLS pair of Houston Dynamo and DC United, and Costa Rican powerhouses Saprissa and Alajuelense.
Yet they reckoned without the unfancied Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders, rank outsiders who might have been short on tradition but were definitely not lacking in ambition. Despite turning out in the USL, the tier below Major League Soccer, and featuring players who were virtual unknowns outside their domestic leagues, the duo made light of the odds and surprised everyone with their enthusiasm and compelling football.
The Islanders turned their section on its head with a stunning 3-1 defeat of favourites Santos, while the Impact sprang another shock away to Olimpia of Honduras, silencing their opponents' vociferous fans with a valuable 2-1 win at one of the most daunting venues in the region.
Those surprise triumphs proved vital to their qualification for the Championship Round, where they were joined by all four Mexican teams, Houston and Marathon of Honduras. For recognised contenders such as Saprissa, Alajuelense and DC United it was a case of better luck next year.
High stakes and lots of drama
Although the Mexicans fulfilled expectations by taking three of the semi-final places, they did not have things all their own way in the quarters. Atlante had little trouble in disposing of the Texans 4-1 on aggregate, but the same could not be said of Santos. After a 2-0 first-leg reverse in front of a 55,000-strong crowd in Montreal, Los Guerreros needed a late goal rush in the return in Torreon to make sure of their place in the semis, eventually progressing 5-2.
Cruz Azul took the third slot when they edged out compatriots Pumas in a tight tie, although the story of the last eight was provided by the amazing Islanders, who beat Marathon home and away to keep their fairytale run going.
That run looked set to continue after a 2-0 win against Cruz Azul in first leg of their semi-final. The Puerto Ricans were just minutes away from eliminating the mighty Mexicans in the return only for Los Cementeros to conjure up a late comeback and then prevail in a penalty shootout. Beaten but not unbowed, the Islanders could at least console themselves with the fact that their memorable adventure had put Puerto Rican football on the map.
There was no shortage of tension in the other semi, which began with Santos claiming a 2-1 win over Atlante in Torreon. The Iron Colts levelled the tie on aggregate back in Cancun, and with extra time looking inevitable they secured their place in the final with a last-minute spot-kick.
Sadly, the two-legged final failed to generate the same level of intensity, as underdogs Atlante dominated from start to finish. An unexpectedly comfortable 2-0 win in Mexico City put them in a virtually impregnable position, and they easily held off Cruz Azul's attempted comeback in the second leg to complete an unforgettable tournament and book their place in the Dubai sun in December.