The 50th edition of the Copa Libertadores has reached its climax, with the first leg of the final between Estudiantes La Plata and Cruzeiro set to take place tonight. The Argentinian outfit, who have three Libertadores crowns to the Brazilians' two, will be keen to secure a healthy lead ahead of the return leg in Belo Horizonte in seven days' time, with continental glory and a place at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009 at stake for the victors.
Estudiantes de la Plata (ARG) - Cruzeiro (BRA)
Wednesday 8 July, Estadio Unico (La Plata) - 21.50 (local time)
Anticipation levels are building to a fever pitch ahead of this encounter between two former winners of the competition, sides that have already met in the group phase of this competition and who represent South America's fiercest footballing rivals: Argentina and Brazil. El Pincha will be confident of success on home soil, having won all their home encounters during this edition of the Libertadores without conceding a goal. Moreover, they defeated Cruzeiro 4-0 at the Estadio Unico in the group stage and coach Alejandro Sabella should also be able to count on the talismanic Juan Sebastian Veron, who missed his side's semi-final, second leg against Uruguay's Nacional through injury.
Adilson Batista's charges are no slouches on their travels, however, with their only defeat coming on the aforementioned trip to La Plata on 8 April. Since then they have played just one Libertadores encounter outside of Brazil, which was a 2-1 win over Universidad de Chile in the last 16. Their beaten quarter-final and semi-final opponents were both Brazilian heavyweights, Sao Paulo and Gremio respectively, and Cruzeiro will feel more than capable of picking up a positive result.
Mauro Boselli vs. Wellington Paulista
Libertadores finals are usually decided by the smallest of margins, with the side which makes better use of the chances they create being odds on to clinch the crown. All the more reason why the teams' two top scorers are sure to have key roles to play. Boselli, a product of the Boca Juniors youth system, has hit seven so far this campaign including a vital brace against Nacional in the last four, second leg in Montevideo. Wellington Paulista, for his part, has fired five goals and found the net in both legs of Gremio's semi-final, which underlines the fact that he, like Boselli, is a man for the big occasion.
There is sure to be a fiercely partisan atmosphere in La Plata's cauldron-like Estadio Unico, which will make both teams' ability to dictate the tempo of the match a decisive factor. Sabella's side have Veron in their ranks, a playmaker able to control a game without falling prey to the crowd's impatience. A Raposa, meanwhile, boast all-action Brazil midfielder Ramires and enough technical players to control possession and draw the home side's sting.
Did you know?
Estudiantes' last continental final came as recently as 2008, when El Pincha took on another Brazilian outfit, Internacional, in the Copa Sudamericana decider. Inter's 1-0 first-leg success on 26 November 2008 in La Plata ended Estudiantes 43-match unbeaten run at the Estadio Unico, with the Porto Alegre side taking the trophy after a 1-1 draw in the return.
The numbers game
1 - The number of players in these two squads who also played in the pair's Supercopa Sudamericana quarter-final meeting back in 1994. La Brujita's Veron scored for Estudiantes in a 1-0 win in La Plata which was followed by a 3-0 reverse in Belo Horizonte.
What they said
"We know and respect each other, but you can't compare this tie with the group-stage games. Then you had time to bounce back (from a bad result), but whoever makes a mistake now will end up empty-handed," Estudiantes goalkeeper Mariano Andujar.
"Estudiantes are a team to be wary of, with great players and a significant Libertadores pedigree. We must be particularly careful of Veron, who is the man most able to turn a game in their favour. But we mustn't set our stall out to defend, we'll be chasing the win." Cruzeiro goalkeeper Fabio.