Nacional of Paraguay and Argentina’s San Lorenzo have won through to the final of the Copa Libertadores for the first time in their respective histories, and will now face off for the biggest prize in Latin American club football over two legs.
What makes this unprecedented showdown even more unique is the fact that the two finalists amassed the lowest points tallies of the 16 qualifiers for the knockout phase. Both sides have rich histories behind them, which they will hope to adorn by adding their name to the illustrious list of teams to win the famous trophy.
FIFA.com looks ahead to this Wednesday’s first leg.
The road to the final
The Paraguayans squeezed out of the group phase, their record of two wins, two draws and two defeats giving them eight points and the final qualifying spot for the last 16. That left them facing the best qualifier Velez Sarsfield in the round of 16 and having to play the second legs of their ties away from home. After knocking out Velez and then seeing off Arsenal, with the aid of away draws on both occasions, they then prevailed against Defensor Sporting in the semi-finals, setting up a final in which they will have to travel to Buenos Aires for the second leg.
San Lorenzo have improved as the tournament as has gone on, having advanced from the group phase by the narrowest of margins. They went into the final matchday needing to beat Botafogo convincingly and then wait on the result of Union Espanola’s home game with Independiente del Valle. El Ciclon did what they had to do by beating the Brazilians 3-0, with Independiente’s 5-4 win in Chile allowing the Argentinians to scrape through to the knockout rounds by a solitary goal. In last 16 they overcame Gremio on penalties and then clinched a quarter-final victory over Cruzeiro with a 1-1 draw in Brazil. In the semi-finals they breezed to a 5-1 aggregate defeat of Bolivar.
Founded 110 years ago, Nacional are Paraguay’s third-oldest club behind Olimpia and Guarani, and one of the four founders of the country’s football association. Their former players include the legendary Arsenio Erico, one of the greatest footballers South America has ever produced. The winners of nine league titles, Nacional have been relegated on three occasions and were on the verge of bankruptcy at the end of the 1990s. Prior to their extraordinary run to this year’s Copa Libertadores final, the Asuncion club had never advanced beyond the group phase in their seven previous appearances in the competition.
San Lorenzo are one of Argentina’s oldest, most popular and most successful clubs, having come into existence 106 years ago and won 20 domestic titles. The Copa Libertadores, their biggest obsession, has always eluded them, however. Their first appearance in the final has come after four semi-final exits and they are the only one of Argentina’s so-called “big” clubs never to have won the competition. Relegated to the second division in the 1980s, they almost lost their top-flight status again two seasons ago, when they had to contest the promotion/relegation play-off. The 80s also saw them lose their stadium, forcing the club to lead a nomadic existence for nearly 15 years before the Nuevo Gasometro was built in the Buenos Aires suburb of Bajo Flores. San Lorenzo put a troubled few years behind them by winning the 2013 Inicial championship, and their appearance in the Libertadores final is confirmation that their fortunes are on the up.
Ignacio Don (Nacional)
The Academia goalkeeper is in superb form and offers his side a dependable last line of defence. Don excelled in the group match with Atletico Mineiro in Belo Horizonte, where he kept out a Ronaldinho penalty, in the last-16 meetings with Velez, and in the semis against Defensor Sporting. An essential member of the Nacional line-up, the dependable custodian is one of the reasons why La Tricolor are daring to dream of glory.
Juan Mercier (San Lorenzo)
Mercier brings balance to the Ciclon midfield. A player who invariably times his tackles to perfection and a proficient passer of the ball, Pichi is a vital component of San Lorenzo’s creative machinery, and contributed to their semi-final defeat of Bolivar with a goal in the first leg. His experience and expertise, nurtured in a career that has taken him overseas, will be crucial to his side’s chances of landing the biggest prize in Latin American club football.
The numbers game
0 - The number of home matches Nacional have lost in this year’s competition so far. Their record in Asuncion reads five wins and a solitary draw, which came against 2013 champions Atletico Mineiro.
What they said
“It’s a new experience for everyone. We’re beginners. We’ve never got past the group phase in any of our previous appearances in the competition, and here we are among the two best sides. It’s an opportunity that’s too good for this club to miss. They’re the firm favourites, but this is football and anything can happen. There have been many occasions on which the weaker team has won,” Nacional coach Gustavo Morinigo.
“We have to approach the final with the idea of becoming champions and not just winning the one game. Nacional are as hungry as we are to win the Copa. They’ve never been anything other than underdogs and they’ve knocked out every team they’ve faced. They know exactly what they’re about and every one of their players is ready and willing to do a job. To my mind, their best game yet came against Defensor Sporting,” San Lorenzo coach Edgardo Bauza.