Gremio complete masterful run to bring Copa Libertadores back to Brazil
Something was going to happen for the third time in the final of the 2017 Copa Libertadores.
Gremio of Brazil were going to lift the trophy for the third time. Or, in the third round in a row, Lanus of Argentina were going to stage an epic comeback.
There were a few moments toward the end of Wednesday's game when the latter option began to look like a possibility. But, after a 1-0 win in front of their own fans last week, Gremio completed the task with a 2-1 triumph in the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. Their 3-1 aggregate victory was a deserved triumph for a team that won 10, and lost just two, of the 14 games they played during the course of the campaign.
Last week Lanus sat back, nullifying Gremio's attractive passing game. The Brazilian coach Renato Portaluppi -- the star player in Gremio's first Libertadores win, back in 1983 -- changed tack, using up his substitutions early and launching an aerial attack. It paid off, leading to the only goal of the game. But if Gremio won the first leg by changing their characteristics, they won the second by staying faithful to a style of play they have used all year.
Gremio took the field with the intention of not sitting back to protect their lead. They were aggressive, their midfielders flying into the Lanus penalty area, pressing high, passing and moving. It was soon clear that in a tit-for-tat game, Lanus would have more trouble marking Gremio than vice versa. The exception was little Lanus winger Lautaro Acosta, who seemed to have the beating of opposing right-back Edilson. This, though, was to prove the undoing of the Argentinian squad.
Edilson picked up a yellow card. Lanus had a free kick. They whipped it into the box, but Gremio cleared their lines. Lanus right-back Jose Luis Gomez was their last man, offering defensive cover, and should have dealt with the situation. But he mishit his pass, flying left winger Fernandinho intercepted and charged away to fire Gremio in front with a crashing, left-footed shot.
Before half-time, the Brazilian side had doubled their lead. Key support striker Luan, so disappointing in the first leg, was now enjoying himself, finding space across the attacking line as Lanus were forced forward. He took advantage of a mix-up in the Lanus offside line, cut in from the left with calm, elegance and superb quality, drifting past a succession of defenders and beating keeper Esteban Andrada with a wonderfully executed, subtle little chip.
Gremio had played an almost perfect first half, which was marred just before the whistle when splendid midfielder Arthur, whose balance and passing recalls Andres Iniesta, picked up an ankle injury. Arthur tried to play on after the break, but soon had to be substituted, and without him Gremio never approached anything like the same fluency.
Lanus now needed three goals to force extra time. In the semifinal they had needed four against Buenos Aires giants River Plate. Could they do it once more? At least they now had more of the ball. Coach Jorge Almiron waited 20 minutes into the second half to make his first change. It might well have been too long, because the substitution changed the game. On came the elusive Marcelino Moreno to play on the left wing. Lanus now had four up front. Their intricate passing moves on the edge of the area had been blocked. But now, with more attacking presence, they made the breakthrough. Moreno cut across, centre-forward Jose Sand slipped a pass behind the defensive line, but before Acosta could shoot he was scythed down by Jailson. Sand stepped up to slot home the penalty, and Lanus had 20 minutes to search for two more goals.
And before long, there were only 10 Gremio players to stop them. Midfielder Ramiro was sent off -- harshly, it seemed, but Gremio had brought the pressure on themselves by retreating too much and concentrating on running the clock down instead of playing their football.
Gremio, though, were not about to go the way of River Plate. They kept their defensive discipline, broke the hearts of Lanus and wasted a chance to add another goal on the counter-attack, the only clear chance of the game after Ramiro's expulsion.
The first Brazilian winners of the Libertadores since 2013, Gremio will now represent South America in the Club World Cup. A travelling army of some 5,000 fans made the trip to Argentina. Many of them will now be anxiously consulting their bank accounts to see if they can follow the team to the United Arab Emirates, where Gremio will face either Pachuca of Mexico or Wydad Casablanca of Morocco on Dec. 12.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.