Winners and Losers from 2014 Copa Libertadores
The Copa Libertadores tournament may not have the global profile or international superstars of its European cousin, the Champions League, but in terms of pure excitement and tension, the South American tournament can match it all the way. Wednesday evening brought to a close the 44th edition of the Copa, with San Lorenzo taking victory over Paraguay's Nacional in the final.
But who stood out most in the tournament that opened in February and took a break for the World Cup before coming back with a vengeance at the end of July? Which teams covered themselves in glory, and who was forced out of the Libertadores much earlier than expected?
In a year in which the Brazilian stranglehold on the Copa, which dated back to 2010, was finally broken by the Argentine giants, it is time to look back on the real winners and losers of a fascinating continental tournament.
Winner: San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo fans have long been the butt of jokes from their Argentine compatriots. Out of the nation's Big Five clubs—a group that also includes Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club and Independiente—the Cuervo were the only members who had not enjoyed the distinction of a Libertadores title.
All that has now changed. Solidity and defensive power, rather than individual sparkle, were the keys for the Bajo Flores club as they marched through to the final. Brazilian powerhouses Gremio and Cruzeiro were dispatched on the way, and Nestor Ortigoza's penalty assured a 2-1 final aggregate win over Nacional and the first-ever Copa for the long-suffering San Lore faithful.
Loser: Brazilian Football
Perhaps the Brazilian national team's failure to perform on home soil during the World Cup was inevitable given how abruptly the country's top clubs fell by the wayside this year in the Copa Libertadores. Domination of the tournament by South America's largest nation came to an embarrassing end in 2014.
For the first time since 1991, none of Brazil's six Copa participants managed to qualify for the semi-final, a disaster that brought back memories of the dark days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Paraguay forced them into the shadows.
Half of the Brazilian contingent were kicked out at the group stage, while holders Atletico Mineiro were humiliated by Atletico Nacional in the last 16. Gremio fared a little better but went down to San Lorenzo on penalties, while Cruzeiro, left to fly the flag alone in the quarter-finals, suffered the same fate against the Cuervo.
2014's failure represents a massive set-back for Brazil's top clubs in the same way the 7-1 humiliation against Germany will prove a watershed moment for the Selecao.
La Paz club Bolivar could not quite make it to the final. The Bolivians' dreams were shattered in the last four by San Lorenzo, losing 5-0 in Buenos Aires before clawing back some respectability at home with a 2-1 win.
Nevertheless, their 2014 Copa Libertadores campaign will go down in history.
Never before had a club from Bolivia, historically considered a poor relation of South American football, made it so far in the continent's most important club competition. Bolivar and Jorge Wilstermann had qualified for the second group phase of the Copa during the 1980s, which arguably constituted a semi-final, but 2014 marked the first time the nation had figured among the four best teams in the region.
Home form in La Paz was obviously important, as Bolivar won four and drew two of their encounters in the Bolivian capital. But the club were strong throughout the tournament, with stars such as Juan Carlos Arce and Rudy Cardozo holding their own against the best of the Libertadores.
Losers: Nicolas Anelka and Atletico Mineiro
All looked so positive for Atletico Mineiro as they prepared for the Copa Libertadores knockout phase in April of this year. The defending champions had marched unbeaten through the group stages, taking 12 points and fired by in-form stars Jo and Ronaldinho.
Surely, nothing could go wrong in their bid for back-to-back titles.
The boat was rocked, however, by an abortive attempt to sign former France international, professional troublemaker and occasional footballer Nicolas Anelka.
Mineiro's efforts to bolster their forward line for the last 16 onward were thwarted when the striker went AWOL before signing his contract, according to The Guardian. Club authorities were not impressed by the excuse that Anelka was on a religious trip to Kuwait and promptly cancelled the deal.
The next tie saw the Galo hit just one goal as they crashed out 2-1 on aggregate to Atletico Nacional, ending their hopes of repeating the triumph.
Winner: Edgardo Bauza
Winning the Copa Libertadores once is a great achievement for any South American coach. Winning it twice—and with two different teams, to boot—is a feat worthy of putting any trainer among the elite of the continent's tactical geniuses. Step forward, Edgardo Bauza.
The Rosario native surprised the world in 2008 when his unfancied Liga de Quito side, taking full advantage of the Ecuador capital's nosebleed-inducing altitude to become unbeatable at home, became the first team from that country to lift the Libertadores. Now back in his native Argentina, Bauza wasted no time in repeating that success.
San Lorenzo recovered from the loss of Juan Antonio Pizzi at the start of 2014 by throwing the cup specialist into the job, and Bauza performed admirably with a tactical setup that allowed both collective strength and individual talent to shine. The Cuervo rode their luck during the group stages, but the coach's exceptional reading of the game meant they were too good for anyone in South America during the lottery of the knockout stages.
Loser: The Centre-Forward
The absence of Brazilian teams in the Libertadores' latter stages certainly led to a more democratic, if perhaps less skilful, conclusion to the tournament. Similarly, the 2014 Copa will be remembered for a surprising shared approach to put the ball in the back of the net, with no single striker coming to prominence.
Julio Dos Santos and Nicolas Olivera led the scoring charts with just five strikes each, compared to Cristiano Ronaldo's winning total of 15 in the European Champions League. Nacional and San Lorenzo, meanwhile, despite going all the way to the final, failed to contribute a single player to the top 15 hit men.
Loser: Atletico Nacional
Colombian giants Atletico Nacional have a proud record in continental competition. The Medellin club were the first team from their country to lift the Libertadores, prevailing over Olimpia in 1989 with a team featuring stars such as Leonel Alvarez, Rene Higuita, Albeiro 'El Palomo' Usuriaga and the late, great defender Andres Escobar.
In 2014, with a squad stuffed full of talent and off the back of an excellent reverse of holders Atletico Mineiro, the Verdolaga looked set to make a splash. But a dreadful meltdown in the quarter-finals sealed the fate of Nacional.
Tricky playmaker Sherman Cardenas, young wonderkid Edwin Cardona and veteran centre-forward Juan Pablo Angel were expected to make short work of their last-eight opponents, Uruguayan minnows Defensor Sporting. But the Violeta shocked Medellin by taking a 2-0 win in the Atanasio Girardot, and followed that up with another victory in Montevideo to dump the Colombians out of the Copa.