Lodeiro leading Nacional charge
© AFP

On 26 October 1988, Uruguay's Nacional beat Argentina's Newell's Old Boys 3-0 in Montevideo's Estadio Centenario to lift the Copa Libertadores for the third and to date last time in their illustrious history. And as they prepare to try and overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit against Estudiantes de La Plata in the semi-final of the 2009 Copa Libertadores, their hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of a young man born in the city of Paysandu some 400 kilometres from the Uruguayan capital, just five months after that success.

The young man in question is 20-year-old attacking midfielder Marcelo Nicolas Lodeiro, whose direct style and technical ability have been key factors in Nacional's bid to reach a seventh Libertadores final. Indeed, Lodeiro is his team's top scorer in the competition with four goals, not that the youngster has let it go to his head.

"On a personal note, it's a dream to play in such a huge match and I want to make the most of it because I might never experience it again," he told FIFA.com in the run up to 1 July's second leg in Montevideo. "It's also really important for the squad and the club, and even Uruguayan football as a whole, because it (a team from Uruguay reaching the final) hasn't been done for 20 years."

"We had quite a lot of the ball but we were lacking penetration," said Lodeiro on the 1-0 reverse in La Plata which ended Nacional's unbeaten run in the competition. "We whacked too many straight balls into the box and their defenders were heading them away for fun! We need to keep the ball down and use the angles more in attack to stop our strikers being so isolated and break down their defensive barrier. We mustn't panic either, we can still turn the tie around."

It's been a long time since the club played such an important match and pressure is part of the game.
Nicolas Lodeiro on laying in Montevideo.

One of the key talking points prior to the game is the absence through injury of El Pincha's iconic midfield string-puller Juan Sebastian Veron. "It's better for us that he's not playing," said Lodeiro with refreshing frankness. "We left him free for a second last week and he took a free-kick which led to their goal. But Estudiantes are a compact team who did really well going forward and at the back even without Veron on the pitch. It's going to be another really tough match."

And having played without the support of their away following in La Plata, with officials at both clubs unable to reach an agreement on ticket allocations, on Tuesday evening Nacional can look forward to the backing of nearly 60,000 fans in the Centenario. Does that put extra pressure on the team? "Yes, especially because we're going to have to go and chase the game. It's been a long time since the club played such an important match and pressure is part of the game: you have to treat it as such and channel it in the right way."

"As I'm the midfielder who makes the most runs and I play a linking role, sometimes the team really relies on me," continued the player, who clearly has a wise head on his young shoulders. "It doesn't bother me though, in fact I welcome the responsibility. It not like that all the time, though, and reaching the semis is a group effort."

"I tend to say what I think and I'm the same out on the pitch," said Lodeiro, who comes across as very much his own man. "I almost always do what the coach tells me but sometimes I like to spring a surprise, like taking on my man when I shouldn't or nutmegging someone. That's how I play and I've no intention of changing."

Already rumoured to be attracting interest from Europe, interest that would surely increase with a good performance at this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt, Lodeiro refused to be drawn on a potential move. "Nacional is like my home. I was born in an inland area but I've been here since I was very young," said the player as the interview drew to a close.

"This is the club I grew up at and I want to go down in their history. There's nothing I'd like more than to give something back to the club that gave me everything and this is my big chance to do just that."