Gremio deny Barcelona's comeback dreams, advance to Libertadores final
Tuesday night produced one of the great comebacks in the history of South America's Copa Libertadores. In an all-Argentine semifinal, Lanus found themselves needing four goals in 46 minutes to overcome River Plate -- and they managed all four, reaching their first final in magnificent style.
Could Wednesday's semifinal match it for drama? The task ahead of Barcelona of Ecuador was, if anything, even more daunting than that which had faced Lanus. Barcelona had lost the first leg 3-0 at home to Gremio of Brazil. The Ecuadorians faced a long trip south to face opponents with a 100 percent home record in the competition. And to make matters worse, Barcelona's journey turned into a logistical nightmare. They stopped to refuel in Bolivia, but problems with the documents of their flight meant they were unable to continue. Trapped in Bolivia for two days, they improvised some training sessions until the Ecuadorian military came up with a plane to take them to Brazil on the eve of the game.
Barcelona, though, had got the better of three Brazilian teams en route to the semifinal and were not intimidated by the challenge. Their counter-attacking style is best suited to away games -- and they had key Uruguayan centre-forward Jonathan Alvez back after missing last week's game through suspension.
Just after the half hour, Alvez opened the scoring, hooking home after left winger Marcos Caicedo had reached the byline and sent in a cross. Nerves spread through the crowd. This year Gremio have been an attractive, possession-based team. In the first leg, though, they had uncharacteristically spent much of the game pushed back deep into their own half. But they had scored two early goals, and could afford to be cautious. But as they once again failed to find their passing rhythm, it seemed that perhaps the team was unsure of itself. Did Gremio really have faith in their method of play? A second Barcelona goal would make the question especially pertinent -- and it very nearly came.
Ten minutes into the second half playmaker Damian Diaz spun into space and found right winger Ely Esterilla. Gremio left-back Cortez appeared to forget that Esterilla is left footed, and allowed him to cut inside. Esterilla's shot beat keeper Marcelo Grohe but came back off the post.
It was the decisive moment of the evening. Barcelona would have taken extra heart from the goal. Instead, suddenly their team looked like a band of leg-weary boxers. Space opened up on the pitch and Gremio started to take advantage. Support striker Luan is one of the best players in South American football. The two-goal hero of the first leg, he began to open up the pitch with interesting angles on his passes. And little midfielder Arthur, whose form has dipped of late, began to impose his skipping rhythm on proceedings. Gremio came close to an equaliser on the night -- Cortez reached the byline and crossed. Substitute centre-forward Jael headed back across goal and grazed the post.
Gremio were losing their 100 percent home record, and were losing on the night. But they were winning the prize.
They had been in contention to win the domestic league until deciding to give priority to the LIbertadores and the Brazilian Cup. They lost in the semifinals of the domestic cup, and wanted to make sure they made it all the way through to the final of the continental competition. So there was no big attempt to put on a show for the public. They kept it serious and stayed 3-1 ahead on aggregate all the way to the whistle, becoming the first Brazilian club to reach the Libertadores final since 2013.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.