Corinthians close in on Libertadores dream
Some 20 years ago, Corinthians director Luis Paulo Rosenberg made a promise to himself. He said, "[When we win the Copa Libertadores] I want to buy a bottle of cachaca (the local moonshine), drink it all myself and sleep in the gutter, drunk."
He has never been closer to buying that bottle. In the 53rd version of the South America's Champions League, the Brazilian giants have made it through to the final at last. They are two games away from lifting the trophy - the final is played on a home and away basis with the first match on 27 June and the return leg on 4 July.
But their Argentine opponents are rich in tradition. A Boca Juniors director given to celebrating Libertadores triumphs the Rosenberg way would surely have succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. The Argentine club have six wins to their name, four of them this century.
Boca are defined by their success in the competition, Corinthians have been marked by its absence, especially as all their local rivals have won it.
Corinthians are hoping to celebrate after the Copa Libertadores final. Photo - Getty images
That aside, there are striking similarities between the two clubs. Both are true giants. Corinthians are the most popular team in Sao Paulo, as are Boca in Buenos Aires. Both are products of the mass Italian immigration pouring into the rapidly urbanising cities of South America's southern cone in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both cultivate a working class ethic of sweat and sacrifice.
Comparisons also come easily when discussing their current sides. Both have a safety first, 'keep a clean sheet' mentality.
With age and injuries undermining Portuguese international centre forward Liedson, Corinthians have been taking the field without a recognised player in that role. Coach Tite's formation could probably best be described as 4-2-4-0. Nominally the strikers, Jorge Henrique and Emerson are thrown wide, and track back the forward runs of the opposing full backs. There are two attacking midfielders, the languid and intelligent Danilo, and the busier Alex. Behind them Ralf protects the back four, while Paulinho both defends and bursts forward to join the attack.
The strength in numbers of this midfield block makes Corinthians very hard to play through. In the 12 games of this campaign they have conceded just three goals.
Boca Juniors also pride themselves on defensive solidity. Things were always going to be interesting when Julio Cesar Falcioni took over as coach at the end of 2010. He was not known for playing with an old style number 10 - and at Boca, veteran playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme is king. Initially there were problems; two strikers plus Riquelme left the side too open. Falcioni's task eased a year ago when lumbering centre forward Martin Palermo retired.
It enabled him to select two mobile strikers, one of whom usually drops behind the line of the ball when the team loses possession. With a narrow midfield trio behind Riquelme, and deep enough to stay close to the defensive line, Boca, too, are hard to play though. They like to form a funnel, forcing the opposition inside where they come up against the Boca centre backs in reduced space. They conceded just six goals winning last year's domestic championship, and have only let in seven during the Libertadores campaign.
Both Boca and Corinthians made disappointing starts to this year's Libertadores against Venezuelan sides. Corinthians needed a 93rd-minute goal to snatch a draw at Deportivo Tachira - who failed to win a game in their group. Zamora did not manage a single goal in their six games, but they held Boca to a draw in a candidate for the worst game of the entire competition.
Tempers in the Boca camp were frayed after such an awful performance, and for a while rumours were flying that Falcioni had resigned. But after a sub-standard start, for one of these two teams the 2012 Libertadores is going to have a happy ending.
In emotional terms, Boca hold the advantage. This is the 13th Brazil v Argentina climax to the Libertadores. The club from Argentina has won nine of them, including the last five. In recent years the Brazilians have had a tendency to lose their heads under the pressure of the final game, especially when the second leg has been in front of their own fans, as is the case this year. Tite will have to work extensively on getting his players in the right frame of mind, especially as Boca are such experienced opponents.
In physical terms, Corinthians come out on top. The Brazilian Championship is only six rounds old, and Tite has been selecting reserve sides, leaving his players fresh for the Libertadores. Boca, meanwhile, have been caught up in the battle for the Argentine title.
They fielded a reserve side in Sunday's last round (for those who followed last week's blog, Tigre failed to win the championship but avoided the relegation play offs. Arsenal won their first title, leading sports daily 'Ole' to print the delightful headline 'Historic Arse') but up to then had been caught in a fixture pile up, losing centre back Juan Insaurralde to injury in the process.
If Corinthians can pass the ball with sufficient pace to get outside Boca's midfield block then they could do some damage. And if Boca have to chase the game their defence may not look so solid - key centre back Rolando Schiavi is 39, and can be vulnerable if drawn out into open space.
Whatever happens this week in Buenos Aires, next week in Sao Paulo, there is a good chance that Corinthians director Luis Paulo Rosenberg will be emotionally drained and lying in the gutter at the end of it all. But the probability is just over 50% that he will be staring at the stars.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
I recently read about the horrible state of Vasco de Gama's youth development academy in regards to the conditions these young kids are forced to live and play football in. Is this a rare case or are other Brazilian clubs youth academies similar? What, if anything is being done about preventing this from happening in the future? Dan Green
A judge described the kids' conditions as 'slave-like,' listing outrages such as inadequate housing and transport and even rationing of water. Unfortunately no, this is not an isolated case. Other clubs are also guilty. We're looking underneath the rock at the ugly side of the beautiful game with this one - especially as the ruthless mathematics of football means that the vast majority of the kids will not go on to make a living from the game.
Initially the case was greeted with a depressing silence in the local media. The good news is that a Rio newspaper has been running an investigative series into the issue.