Having made way for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the Copa Libertadores returns this week with the semi-final first legs, with Nacional of Paraguay taking on Defensor Sporting and San Lorenzo locking horns with Bolivar.
None of the four sides have won the tournament before, while two of them are making their first appearances in the semi-finals. FIFA.com preview’s the week’s two ties.
This week’s fixtures
Semi-final first legs
Tuesday 22 July, 20.15 (local time)
Nacional (PAR) v Defensor Sporting (URU)
Wednesday 23 July, 19.45 (local time)
San Lorenzo (ARG) v Bolivar (BOL)
Jubilant at reaching the semi-finals for the first time in six attempts, the Paraguayans will almost certainly go into the tie without strike duo Fredy Bareiro and Julian Benitez, both of whom are struggling with injuries. Despite that double blow, Nacional have reason enough to believe they can continue their unlikely run, having disposed of Arsenal of Argentina in the previous round.
Defensor Sporting have injury concerns of their own, with Emilio Zeballos and Ramon Arias unlikely to start. After defeating Atletico Nacional of Colombia home and away in the last eight and breaking new ground in the competition, the Uruguayans will once again be banking on their no-nonsense style to get the job done and move into the final.
Player to watch
Nicolas Olivera (Defensor Sporting)
The Uruguayan attacking midfielder is one of leading scorers in this year’s competition with five goals, and found the net in both meetings with Atletico Nacional. A seasoned campaigner and an idol of the Defensor fans, the 36-year-old is in fine fettle and full of confidence after his recent match-winning performances.
The numbers game
31 - the number of years it has taken Nacional of Paraguay to reach the Copa Libertadores semi-finals. The Paraguayans made their tournament debut in 1983 and had never progressed beyond the second round before this year.
36 - the number of years it has taken Defensor Sporting to make the last four of the competition. The Uruguayans’ first Libertadores campaign came in 1977 and their best performance prior to this year came in 2007 and 2009, when they advanced to the quarter-finals.
What they said
“We are delighted with the work the squad is putting in and we are aware of the huge responsibility we have. The players are really focused on the job in hand and I don’t think there’s anything in the world that’s going to distract them,” Nacional coach Gustavo Morinigo.
“The World Cup broke up the rhythm we were in, so we’ve been playing a few friendlies. We’re not going to alter things that much and I don’t think Nacional will either, except for the odd injury-enforced change,” Defensor Sporting coach Fernando Curutchet.
Having seen off Brazilian opposition in the last two rounds, El Ciclón are entitled to be feeling confident of making further progress. Though they will have to make do without the creativity of Angel Correa following his move to Atletico Madrid and the defensive solidity offered by Carlos Valdes, who appeared with Colombia at Brazil 2014, Los Azulgranas can still count on the services of the talismanic Leandro Romagnoli and the talented Ignacio Piatti. The Libertadores has been an obsession of San Lorenzo’s for years, and their aim will be to take command of the tie before the return in La Paz.
Coached by Xabier Azkargorta, the Bolivians have sold their main goal threat Willian Ferreira and brought in Oscar Rodas, Victor Cordoba and Ecuadorian striker Carlos Tenorio. Fresh from seeing off reigning Copa Sudamericana champions Lanus in the previous round with an away draw and a home win, Bolivar’s hopes of reaching the final will lie in their ability to reproduce the kind of organised displays that have taken them this far.
Player to watch
Juan Miguel Callejon (Bolivar)
A Real Madrid youth product and the twin brother of Napoli’s Jose Maria Callejon, the Spanish midfielder has been one of the revelations of the tournament. His four goals have helped the Bolivians check into the last four for only the second time their history, and his experience will come in vital against a side of San Lorenzo’s stature.
The numbers game
4 - this is the fourth time that San Lorenzo have reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. The three other occasions came in 1960, 1973 and 1988, with the Argentinians losing every time.
28 - the number of years that have gone by since Bolivar last reached this stage of the competition, the only and only time they had done so prior to this season.
What they said
“Of the four semi-finalists, Bolivar are the best side. They know exactly what they’re about and, unusually for a Bolivian team, they move the ball around. They’re very organised, their wide midfielders are very fast and they almost always score away from home,” San Lorenzo coach Edgardo Bauza.
“We’re not worried about how San Lorenzo play, but we know they’re a very tough team. We have to believe that if Bolivar put the work in and play the right game, then that will be enough,” Bolivar forward Carlos Tenorio.