Atletico Mineiro progressed to the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores on Wednesday night in typically thrilling style. A last-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Victor was all that separated the team from what would have been an unexpected exit at the quarterfinal stage—a result that would have left Brazil without semifinal representation.
Opponents Tijuana were, in truth, desperately unlucky. The goalkeeper's kick out of his trailing leg was all that separated Xolos from the semifinal place their performance had deserved. Had they progressed, they would have been heavily fancied to become the first Mexican winners of South American football's most famous prize.
Instead, it is Atletico who remain heavy favourites with the bookmakers. They would be well advised, though, to treat their Tijuana escape as a lesson against complacency. Despite Brazilian sides' travails in this year's tournament, their victory was greeted with headlines that virtually proclaimed them as champions.
Indeed, presumptuous claims about Brazilian sides' Libertadores hopes have become commonplace in recent years. Largely, though, they have been proven correct by the country's success over the past 10 years. Brazilian sides, though, are on a separate financial playing field to most of their opponents.
On paper, the biggest threat to Atletico this year will come in the form of Argentine semifinal opponents Newell's Old Boys—the side currently topping their own domestic league.
Striker Ignacio Scocco has been free-scoring since a return to South America from last summer, while the names of Gabriel Heinze and Maxi Rodriguez will be familiar to most fans around the world. Newell's were responsible for dumping compatriots Boca Juniors out the competition during the week via a remarkable penalty shootout.
The other side of the draw, meanwhile, sees Santa Fe of Colombia take on Olimpia of Paraguay, in what will be a far more modest clash. Whichever side progresses will enter the eventual final as the heavy underdogs, but should take confidence from their respective victories over Brazilian sides Gremio and Fluminense.
The Copa Libertadores is a competition that always threatens to be predictable on paper, but never ceases to amaze in reality. Atletico have already had one major shock en route to the final, and there will no doubt be more difficulties on the road ahead.
That said, there is much to admire about this Atletico side, and there are good reasons to back up the widespread belief that they will go on to lift the title. They have struck an impressive balance within the side, offering power and organisation defence, while also remaining inventive and dynamic in attack. At the centre of it all is the side's conductor—Ronaldinho Gaucho.
Much has been written about Ronaldinho's resurgence in Belo Horizonte, and it has been truly remarkable. When he left Flamengo by mutual consent 12 months ago, it was off the back of six months of poor form, during which he was featuring heavily in the media for off-field antics.
At Atletico, that has all calmed down, and his performances have reached what is perhaps the high of his late career.
Atletico allow Ronaldinho to play his natural game and have reaped the results of their faith in his abilities. With defensive midfielders Pierre and Leandro Donizete offering a solid platform behind him, he is given free reign to influence proceedings in attacking areas.
He may lack the pace of old, but there are still very few players with the ability to improvise a pass with such astonishing accuracy. The surges forward of full-backs Marcos Rocha and Junior Cesar in turn open up space in central areas, and Ronaldinho is then able to exploit those gaps.
Add in the energy and dexterity provided by partner-in-crime Bernard, and it is easy to see why they have been so difficult to repress thus far in 2013. Difficult to repress, but also difficult to break down as centre-backs Rever and Leonardo Silva continue to offer Brazil's best central defensive partnership at the back.
Corinthians were lauded last year for their continental and Club World Cup successes, but Atletico seem to have built upon what the Timao offered. They are able to stay similarly compact in defence, but provide considerably more innovation and speed in attack. They are a far more aesthetically pleasing side.
They may not go on to match Corinthians' exploits, either in the Copa Libertadores or the Club World Cup, but the tremendous football they have displayed should be remembered regardless. They will take on Newell's without the suspended Rever, and possibly without Europe-bound Bernard, but will still be favourites to progress.
It will be far from easy, but if competitions were judged on performances and style, they would be undisputed champions. Ronaldinho has recaptured his spark and, regardless of whether he is still capable of performing internationally, a Copa Libertadores triumph would be a fantastic late addition to his glittering career.
The perennial underdogs of Brazilian football, Galo must now show they are ready to seize the limelight. For a club with just one Brasileirao title to their name, the attention will come as quite a shock.
However, there is perhaps no set of supporters as deserving of a day in the sunshine as Atletico's frequently disappointed faithful. All their many years of suffering would pale into insignificance if they could seal a long-awaited Libertadores crown.
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