Medellin‘s Atletico Nacional finished things off against Cesar Vallejo on Wednesday with a 1-0 win away in Peru that will see “El Verde” through to its first Copa Sudamericana semifinal since 2003.
It didn’t come easy for Nacional, but then again, not alot has this past season. Years of scheduling fatigue have taken a pointed toll, and for head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, a little bit of grace from the Soccer Gods was a welcome, albeit short-lived, relief.
“In other games we’ve controlled everything, but today it wasn’t working for us. Today soccer rewarded us,” said Osorio, before boarding a plane back to Medellin, where El Verde will take on Patriotas this Sunday for a birth in the Colombian league playoffs. “Now we move on. Now we prepare for the game this weekend.”
This is how it’s been throughout Osorio’s already distinguished tenure with Colombia’s most storied franchise: short layovers and long, tight stretches with no time at all to sit back and let it sink in. F0r all that, or perhaps because of it, “El Profe” has done as fine a job as anyone could managing his roster amid the twisted demands of international and domestic play.
Cesar Vallejo, a hard nut to crack
You could see him on the sideline Wednesday, scribbling away furiously in his notebook, running the numbers through the strange mystic algorithm that has produced so many strategic breakthroughs for his club these past glory-filled years. But even that wizardry has its limits, and throughout the first half in Trujillo, Nacional looked like it was brushing up hard against its own.
It took Cesar Vallejo about 15 minutes to get the defense in order, but once the midfield joined in the press, the Peruvian side made life extremely difficult for a noticeably sluggish Verde. Nacional struggled to play out of its own half. Edwin Cardona and Sherman Cardenas, Nacional’s playmaking duo in the midfield, dissapeared almost entirely, and center-half Alexis Henriquez was teetering around like a tree trunk on a unicycle.
Coming in with a one-goal deficit from the first leg in Medellin and playing in front of a lively home crowd, Cesar Vallejo closed down hard on the short-passing lanes and took advantage of the ensuing chaos to rain a series of increasingly clear chances down on Franco Armani’s goal.
Vallejo’s first few opportunities came off wild scrambles and sloppy turnovers. But the long ball started to expose a slow Nacional back line, and Armani’s last three heroic stops came off clean shots, including one driven volley from 12-feet out in the 42′.
“I think it wasn’t our best game, especially in the first half. The direct play made things hard for us,” said Osorio. “Franco was our most influential player.”
The 28-year-old Argentine was the only one who came out with much in the way of energy, and by the end of the opening 45 minutes, Nacional would need every last drop of it to escape with the series still in hand.
“Thank God for that,” said Armani. “The most important thing was keeping a clean sheet.”
Breaking the deadlock
Nacional entered the game having pulled out a deceptively narrow 1-0 victory in Medellin the previous week. In the second half Wednesday, El Verde was able to regain some of the characteristic possession play that smothered Cesar Vallejo in the first leg.
Even so, Vallejo held up. It wasn’t until Colombian centerhalf Luis Cardoza was sent off in the 66′ on his second yellow that Nacional was able to generate any real danger on offense.
In the 78′, Sherman Cardenas started a nice nice bit of combination in the attacking third that found Edwin Cardona unmarked in the open space left by Cardoza’s expulsion. Cardona–who was responsible for Nacional’s only chance of the first half: a low, curling free kick from outside the box that required a diving save–turned on a well-slotted pass from Luis Carlos Ruiz and hit a one-time shot off the hands of the Vallejo keeper and into the far post for the game’s only goal.
“We were looking to get free of our marks, and Edwin did it in the best way possible,” said Osorio. “I think if we look at both games, we were better than Cesar Vallejo.”
Better or not, for a team that’s achieved it all domestically and failed repeatedly, for years, to break through on the international stage, a trip to the Copa Sudamericana semifinals is all that matters–at least until this weekend, when the prospect of a fourth consecutive Liga Postobon championship goes on the line against Patriotas de Boyaca in a surprisingly dramatic last game of the season.
It’s hard to imagine a Colombian tournament without Nacional in it, given the way the defending league and league cup champs have cake-walked through domsestic competition these past few years, putting up gaudy, circus-style scorelines and generally outclassing even the very top of the table. But a loss on Sunday could actually be a blessing in disguise for El Verde.
This Sao Paolo team has upgraded significantly since booting a much fresher Nacional out of the tournament last year in the quarterfinals, and that was without the home advantage it has to look forward to this time around. Two weeks of recuperation and practice–almost a foreign concept to this year’s side–might be the only way Nacional can expect to break a much-bemoaned international dry spell, first against one of the top teams in Brazil, and then against the winner of the two most decorated sides in Argentine, and indeed regional, history.
Still, chances are that Nacional pulls out another gutsy win this Sunday, which would mean yet another extended stretch of two-day rests and high-stakes madness leading up to the first leg against Sao Paolo. Either way, there’s very little room left for error for a very tired Verde.