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 By Tim Vickery

Atletico Nacional prepare for Club World Cup with draw in Bogota

Atletico Nacional supporters
Atletico Nacional supporters turned out in full force to send their team off for the Club World Cup.

On Wednesday night, Atletico Nacional were to have been in Brazil, disputing the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final against Chapecoense.

Fate had other intensions. Chapecoense, of course, suffered that tragic air crash. The final never took place, and instead, Nacional found themselves in domestic action, playing the first leg of their Colombian league semifinal away to Santa Fe of Bogota.

The game ended 1-1 -- something of a triumph for Nacional because they took the field with a reserve side. The usual starting XI were wrapped in cotton wool. On Thursday Nacional fly off to Japan to represent South America in the Club World Cup -- and they carry the best wishes of millions of Brazilians along with them.

Nacional's conduct since the air crash has been exemplary. Last week they hurriedly organised a deeply touching ceremony for Chapecoense in their Medellin stadium. And they made sure that the Copa Sudamericana title be handed to their Brazilian would be opponents -- both a fitting tribute to those who died, and a practical help, bringing in much needed revenue as Chapecoense plan for the arduous task of getting back on their feet.

Nacional, then, are a great club -- with a very fine squad. Of the three other teams in the Colombian league semifinals, Santa Fe look by some distance the most dangerous. And yet Nacional held them on their own ground in some comfort with a reserve lineup.

But they will have to dig still deeper in Sunday's return game. By then, Nacional will be down to the reserves of the reserves. Nine of Wednesday's starting lineup will be in Japan.

Only one of them has much chance of starting Nacional's opening game in the Club World Cup, against either African champions Mamelodi Sundowns or the winners of the clash between Kashima Antlers of Japan and Auckland City of New Zealand.

Central midfielder Alejandro Bernal did his claims no harm with a storming performance against Santa Fe. Usually a starter, Bernal has lost his place recently after picking up an injury, but provided plenty of thrust, scoring Nacional's goal, and his marking skills, plus his capacity to fill in at right back, could come in useful in Japan.

The calendar clash seems somewhat harsh on Atletico Nacional. In order to follow their global dream they are forced to sacrifice -- or at least scale back -- their domestic ambitions. But there is a flip side. Having to select such an understrength side for the second leg against Santa Fe will give valuable experience to the club's next generation -- players who, given the realities of contemporary South American football, might soon be appearing in the full strength side.

Success in South America always puts players in the shop window. Nacional lost some key members of their team after winning the Colombian league title a year ago. Then, when the Copa Libertadores campaign paused for the Copa Centenario, they lost some more. They won the Libertadores title at the end of July and promptly lost other players. The Club World Cup campaign will probably end the cycle of some of the club's current stars.

The process of renewal is constant, and the only key to continued success in South American club football is to manage this process well. Having to field weakened sides in the domestic league is forcing Nacional to think about accelerating the transition.

An example of the benefits of this can be seen in 17-year-old centre-back Carlos Cuesta. Thrown into the deep end, he is displaying astonishing maturity and plenty of class. He looks like the calibre of player who in years to come could help Atletico Nacional qualify for future versions of the Club World Cup.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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