COPA LIBERTADORES REVIEW - The Copa Libertadores reached its half century in style, with Estudiantes edging a nail-biting final with Cruzeiro. El Pincha's 2-1 away win in the second leg proved decisive, the first leg having ended goalless, and sealed a third successive Libertadores final defeat for Brazilian clubs by foreign teams. Uruguayan teams also featured strongly throughout, while Caracas led the Venezuelan charge with aplomb. FIFA.com reflects on an engrossing competition.
Estudiantes are back at the summit of South American football, 39 years on from the last of their three previous Libertadores titles, which all came between 1968 and 1970. And they certainly did it the hard way, overcoming the departure of coach Leonardo Astrada during the group stage before replacement Alejandro Sabella guided his new charges to the trophy - the first team to do so after starting in the preliminary round. The statistics speak for themselves: El Pincha won ten, drew three and lost just three of their games in the competition proper, boasted its top scorer in Mauro Boselli, and did not concede a single goal at home.
Leading by example was Juan Sebastian Veron, who at the age of 34 fulfilled a lifelong dream and emulated his father Juan Ramon Veron by winning the Libertadores with Estudiantes. La Brujita was voted man of the match in the second-leg victory over Cruzeiro, only the third time an Argentinian club have won at Belo Horizonte's Estadio Mineirao. To reach the decider, El Pincha overcame Peru's Sporting Cristal, Deportivo Quito of Ecuador, Bolivian outfit Universitario de Sucre, Paraguay's Libertad and Uruguayan duo Defensor Sporting and Nacional.
This year's Libertadores could barely have started better for Brazil's representatives, with all five of the country's clubs reaching the last 16. Indeed, Cruzeiro's path to the final included knockout successes over countrymen Sao Paulo and Gremio, though A Raposa's hopes of a glorious culmination ended with Adilson Batista's men empty-handed in their own stadium.
Palmeiras can draw some consolation from their bid, which ended against Uruguay's Nacional at the quarter-final stage. O Verdão joined Sao Paulo as the Brazilian side to have contested most Libertadores campaigns (14), while they have also played and won more games in the competition than any other club from Brazil: 140 and 73 respectively.
Also noteworthy were lacklustre performances by many of the pre-tournament contenders. Exiting at the group phase were reigning champions Liga de Quito, Chile's Colo Colo, Argentinian heavyweights River Plate and San Lorenzo, and Colombian duo Medellin and America de Cali. Two further favourites, 2005 winners Sao Paulo and 2007 champions Boca Juniors, fell at the first knockout hurdle. Los Xeneizes were beaten by Defensor Sporting in the last 16 and O Tricolor Paulista, who received a bye to the quarter-finals after Mexico's representatives withdrew, lost to Cruzeiro.
Colombia and Bolivia were the only CONMEBOL countries not to have a single club in the last 16.
Estudiantes pulled off a minor surprise by becoming the first Argentinian club with the exception of Boca Juniors to win the Libertadores in 13 years. Venezuela's Caracas also confirmed their growing status by reaching the quarter-finals - a historic first for Vinotinto football - before being narrowly edged out by Gremio on away goals.
Another pleasant feature was the Uruguayan renaissance, spearheaded by Nacional and Defensor Sporting. The former, known as El Bolso, were the first Charrúa outfit to reach the last four in 20 years, while Los Violetas might have matched them had they not met eventual winners Estudiantes in the quarter-finals.
The star men
Veron and Boselli aside, the champions could count on the safe hands of Argentinian international keeper Mariano Andujar. Also key late on was the steadying influence of defender Rolando Schiavi, a former Libertadores winner with Boca Juniors, who arrived on loan from Newell's Old Boys and excelled in the semi-final and final. Cruzeiro's campaign was based on outstanding custodian Fabio, the drive of Benfica-bound Ramires in midfield, and the attacking thrust of Kleber and Wellington Paulista.
Also worthy of mention were the contributions of Caracas's Dario Figueroa, Gremio's Souza and Keirrison of Palmeiras, while Jorge Nunez and Rodrigo Teixeira both fired an impressive seven goals for Paraguay's Nacional and Ecuador's Deportivo Cuenca respectively. Coming to prominence at Nacional of Uruguay was Nicolas Lodeiro, while Diego De Souza caught the eye at Montevideo counterparts Defensor Sporting.
Did you know?
The 2009 decider was the third successive final where a Brazilian club lost out despite playing the second leg at home, following Boca Juniors' defeat of Gremio in 2007 and Liga de Quito's penalty shootout win over Fluminense in 2008.
The numbers game
323 - The number of goals scored over 134 matches in this year's competition. Leading the way with 22 goals in 14 games were Cruzeiro, who were the tournament's most clinical team as well as its most sanctioned, receiving five red cards overall.
"The Estudiantes players have deserved a statue in their honour for a while now. Thanks to their hard work, we've now joined the ranks of club legends. Glory was ours and we upheld the club's tradition. We're deserved champions and we have Veron, who is the most influential player ever to wear the shirt," Estudiantes coach Alejandro Sabella
1. Estudiantes LP (ARG) *
2. Cruzeiro (BRA)
* Will take part in the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009
1. Mauro Boselli (8 goals) - Estudiantes (ARG)
2. Jorge Nunez (7) - Nacional (PAR)
3. Rodrigo Teixeira (7) - Deportivo Cuenca (ECU)