Inter end Brazilian hoodoo
© AFP

Just four years after they had claimed Latin America’s most coveted club prize, the Copa Libertadores, for the very first time, Internacional once again underlined why they are one of the most feared sides on the continent. On the back of a campaign featuring victories over reigning champions Estudiantes La Plata and 2005 winners Sao Paulo, the Porto Alegre outfit finally brought the trophy back to Brazil to end a run of three consecutive runners-up finishes for Brazilian teams.

Other notable features of the 51st edition of the Libertadores were a Chilean resurgence headed by semi-finalists Universidad de Chile, Mexico’s consolidation as an ever greater power on the Latin American scene and a disappointing showing from the competition’s Argentinian contingent.

The champions
Inter had failed to win their opening encounter on their seven previous Libertadores campaigns and, though they ended that run this time around with victory over Emelec, O Colorado struggled for consistency right through to the quarter-final stage. The appointment of new coach Celso Roth, who replaced Jorge Fossati with a semi-final berth already in the bag, allied to the signings of three members of Inter’s 2006 Copa-winning squad, Rafael Sobis, Tinga and Renan, would change all that. Following the break for the FIFA World Cup™, the Gaúcho heavyweights tackled the competition with renewed vigour and proved clearly superior to both Sao Paulo and Chivas Guadalajara, their beaten opponents in the last four and final respectively.

Aside from the new coach and new faces, another decisive factor in Inter’s march to the title were their ability to conjure away goals. Perhaps the most crucial of these came in the second leg of the quarter-final meeting away to holders Estudiantes, when Inter would have exited the competition were it not for Giuliano’s 88th-minute strike. The 20-year-old was a talismanic figure for O Colorado throughout the Copa, while experienced Argentinian virtuoso Andres D’Alessandro was also as influential as ever.

Lessons to be learned
Argentina began the tournament with six representatives, though the country’s two biggest clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate were both conspicuous by their absence. In the event, the lesser lights failed to defend the honour of a nation which has won the Libertadores more than any other, with Newell’s Old Boys and Colon failing to negotiate the preliminary phase and Lanus, Velez Sarsfield and Banfield all exiting early. Estudiantes did manage to prolong their title defence into the last eight, but fell some way short of their 2009 heroics.

More positive were the displays of Universidad de Chile which, in conjunction with the national team’s showing at South Africa 2010, were another sign of the resurgence of Chilean football. Universidad’s brand of neat, tactically-aware football took them to the semi-finals, knocking out Brazilian league champions Flamengo along the way, before exiting at the hands of beaten finalists Chivas. The latter, despite being denied the services of five Mexican internationals during the knockout phase, went on to match the achievements of 2001 runners-up Cruz Azul – Mexico’s best Copa performance to date.

Finally to Brazil, who once again had five teams in the Round of 16. Boasting the finest record of any side in the first phase, Corinthians’ dream of a first Libertadores crown was ended by countrymen Flamengo. Having finished runners-up in 2009, Cruzeiro were well beaten by Sao Paulo in the quarter-finals this time around, while O Tricolor Paulista’s own hopes were ended in the last four by Inter – their nemeses from the 2006 final.

The surprise packages
Though unable to replicate the feats of Colombia and Ecuador, countries which have both supplied Libertadores winners in the past decade, 2010 did mark a considerable improvement in Peruvian fortunes in the elite competition. Leading the way were Alianza Lima, who qualified for the knockout stages as the best second-placed side and pushed Universidad de Chile hard in the last 16.

Also reaching that stage were Universitario, who left group rivals Lanus in their wake before exiting on penalties against Sao Paulo in the Round of 16 after two goalless legs. Even relative minnows Juan Aurich surpassed expectations by coming through the preliminary phase, while their striker Juan Tejada and Alianza’s Jose Carlos Fernandez both ended among the tournament’s leading scorers.

Another team to catch the eye were Paraguay’s Libertad, who negotiated the preliminary phase before topping Group 4. And after edging out 2004 winners Once Caldas of Colombia in the last 16, in the next round Libertad came within one goal of overturning a 3-0 first-leg deficit against Chivas.

The star men
Alongside Giuliano and D’Alessandro, champions Inter had another star name in flying left-back Kleber. Meanwhile Bolivar and serial trophy-hunter Indio kept things tight in defence, aided and abetted by hard-working midfielders Pablo Guinazu and Sandro. For Chivas, Omar Bravo underlined his big-game temperament by scoring four goals in the knockout stages.

Argentinian midfielder Walter Montillo was inspirational in pulling the strings for Universidad de Chile, while mention must go to Sao Paulo’s Alex Silva. Silva was the rock at the heart of a defence which conceded just one goal at home, though that solitary strike in the second leg against Inter would cost them a place in the final. Just as in 2009 Cruzeiro were devastating going forward, with Thiago Ribeiro and Kleber finishing the event as the two leading marksmen.

Finally, mention must also go to James Rodriguez of Banfield, Libertad’s Rodolfo Gamarra, Santiago Silva of Velez, Estudiantes’ Rodrigo Brana and Flamengo hitman Vagner Love.

Did you know?
Ever since the 2005 edition, the decisive second leg of the Libertadores final has always taken place on Brazilian soil. Gremio, Fluminense and Cruzeiro all suffered the agony of defeat against non-Brazilian sides in front of their own fans between 2007 and 2009, though Inter’s triumph finally broke the hoodoo and gave Brazil their 14th Copa crown. Argentina still lead the way by some distance with 22.

The stat
2,377,325 – the number of the tickets sold spanning the competition’s 138 games, at an average of just over 17,000 per match. Inter also finished first in this area, with an average of 40,000 fans attending each of their seven games at the Beira-Rio. Nine of the ten biggest attendances were in Brazil with Flamengo-Universidad de Chile at the Maracana, watched by 68,153 paying spectators, topping the lot.

What they said
“I came in for the semi-finals and final. But it’s important to highlight that before I arrived there was a professional in place who did a job here, whether you like him or not. [Jorge] Fossati played an important role. As a foreign coach he had problems adapting (to Brazilian football), but part of this triumph is down to him,” Internacional coach Celso Roth.

Final standings
1. Internacional*
2. Guadalajara

*As champions Inter qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010

The top scorers
1. Thiago Ribeiro (Cruzeiro) – 8 goals
2. Jose Carlos Fernandez (Alianza Lima) and Kleber (Cruzeiro) – 7 goals
3. Giuliano (Internacional) and Luis Tejada (Juan Aurich) – 6 goals