Velez head for Copa Libertadores semi-finals

After the shocks of the previous round all 4 Copa Libertadores Quarter finals went as predicted in the last Letter from South America. The two favourites Santos and Velez Sarsfield are still on course to make it a classic Argentina versus Brazil clash in the Final. Velez Sarsfield had the easier victory in the Quarter Finals seeing off Libertad of Paraguay 3-0 in the home leg before travelling to Paraguay to administer a 4-2 thrashing for a convincing 7-2 aggregate victory. The current team are more offensive than previous Velez sides, who have tended to be dour and defensive. Coach Ricardo Gareca has Velez set up very offensively with striking double act of recent Argentina cap Menendez and the prolific Uruguayan Santiago Silva well supported from midfield by small but tricky Maxi Morales, the skilful and mature Zapata and new signing Ramirez. Interestingly, Gareca has decided to depart from the usual Libertadores pattern of fielding weakened sides in the weekend league games in a determined effort to land  a league and Libertadores double. Just 3 days after the second Libertad game, a full strength Velez side won comfortably in the League to put themselves 3 points clear.

Scotland's favourite Brazilian, Neymar, puts Santos in Libertadores semi-final after helping them retain the Sao Paulo State League

Santos too under the pragmatic but always successful leadership of new coach Muricy Ramalho have also defied conventional wisdom by fielding full strength teams in both legs of the Sao Paulo State Championship final that coincided with their Quarter Final ties with recent holders Once Caldas from Colombia. Regular readers of Letters from South America will remember that last year Santos with a team dedicated to attacking football won both the Sao Paulo State League and the Copa Brazil. They lost two of their attacking stars Robinho to AC Milan and Andre to Dynamo Kiev but retained the brightest star of all Neymar along with the enormously talented young playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso. Bolstered by the return of Elano the current Santos team are not so explosively dynamic offensively as last year’s team but probably have a better balance. In the Sao Paulo State final, by far the most prestigious of the 20 or so Brazilian State league that occupy the first 4 months of the year Santos found themselves pitted against old rivals Corinthians who were able to concentrate on the State League after their disastrous early Copa Libertadores exit in the preliminary round. Minus the two icons Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos that were supposed to carry them to Libertadores glory, but boosted by the compensatory transfers of Leidson and Adriano Corinthians were favourites to offer their millions of supporters some consolation by winning the State League. But over the two legs Santos proved the better team, even with half their mind on the Copa Libertadores, and retained their State title with Scotland’s favourite son Neymar proving himself a true star. Either side of the State Final second leg Santos took on Once Caldas, winning the first leg 1-0 in Colombia to set themselves up nicely for the second leg a week later. The home leg proved more fraught. Neymar put them further in front with a smart goal in the 12th minute but then Renteria who flopped in Europe with Porto equalised after 30 minutes, which meant one more Once goal would put them through on the away goals rule. Santos controlled the game for the most part and when Santos were awarded a penalty with 5 minutes to go it seemed as if qualification would be secured. Neymar confidently approached the ball but then shot tamely at the keeper and it was a nervous final 5 minutes for Santos before the game ended with them 2-1 winners on aggregate. After the game Muricy was careful to praise rather than criticise Neymar, stressing he had played very well, scored one goal and come close several times. Muricy confirmed that Neymar would remain the Santos penalty taker. “He is a player with a great deal of confidence”.

Cerro Porteno make the semi-finals andend Mexican interest in the 2011 Copa Libertadores

In the semi-finals Santos will face Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. Cerro eliminated the Mexican side Jaguares in the Quarter Finals drawing 1-1 away in the first leg then using that away goal advantage to approach the second leg in a very careful and cautious manner, eventually winning 1-0.  So another year has gone by without a Mexican side achieving that elusive first triumph in the Copa Libertadores. Given the growing strength and importance of the World Club Cup championship with its guaranteed placed for the CONCACAF champions who are almost always Mexican(7 winners in the last 9 editions), then maybe it is time for the South American Federation to withdraw the two places awarded annually to Mexican clubs and restrict the Copa Libertadores to clubs from their own Conmebol Federation.

Penarol star Estayanoff puts his club in the semi-finals with late goal

The final semi-place went to one of the traditional great South American club sides, Penarol of Uruguay, World Club Cup winners in 1961, 1966 and 1982. However in the 30 years since that alst triumph, over Aston Villa, Penarol have fallen on hard times and it was all of 24 years ago since they last made even the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. This year they qualified by beating Universidad Catolica of Chile over 2 tightly fought legs. Penarol, having put out holders Internacional PA in the previous round. won the first leg 2-0 in Montevideo. But they struggled in the second leg and with 5 minutes to go, at 2-0 down it looked as if the game was heading to a penalty shoot out. Then the current Penarol star Estayanoff, who never really impressed in his spell in Europe, scored the vital goal to put  a relieved Penarol through 3-2 on aggregate. Despite their history as 5 times Libertadores champions, this Penarol side are likely to start significant underdogs against a Velez Sarsfield club that won the title in 1994.

The other semi final will see Santos, twice winners with Pele in 1962 and 1963 and runners up in 2003, take on a Cerro Porteno club which has never made the Final.

On current form the Final is likely to be contested between Velez and Santos.