Coach Cuca, however, saw the potential and fashioned them into arguably the finest team to watch in all of Brazil last season. But despite Ronaldinho’s wonderful return to form as the Rooster kept pace with eventual winners Fluminense for much longer than many expected, the defining image of their campaign would arrive one evening in Porto Alegre.
Trotting over to the touchline to keep the ball in play after Leonardo Silva’s wayward header made its way towards the corner flag, a squat, slightly scruffy, pintsized teenager kept the ball in play, turned, used his instep to scoop the ball up and over one head before stepping past it and flicking a backheel to send it looping over both himself and a second defender.
Most impressive of all, however, was yet to come. As the ball dropped down in front of him, Bernard Anicio Caldeira Duarte, the boy they twice said was too small to be a footballer, looked up and picked his pass, volleying across goal for Jo to acrobatically convert from close range. Not only had he, as is so wonderfully referred to in Brazil, given two defenders ‘the hat’, but he won the game. Jo’s strike that night would be the only one of the match.
It was a moment that would typify the season he would go on to enjoy, playing a major role in his side’s 2nd place Brasileirao finish to seal Copa Libertadores qualification. He notched 11 goals and went on to pick up the Revelação title as the breakthrough star of the season.
And this past week saw his stock continue to rise as young Bernard announced himself on the continental stage, grabbing a fabulous hat-trick as his side trounced Arsenal in Sarandi. Julio Furch gave the Argentinians the lead inside 90 seconds, but Bernard sneaked in around the back to hammer home an equaliser just five minutes later. The 20 year-old completed his hat-trick in five second half minutes to seal all three points and a 5-2 victory for the Rooster – a game which also featured this horrific “tackle” from Diego Braghieri on Ronaldinho.
“It’s a moment that I will remember for a long time,” said Bernard of his evening. “To score three goals in a game is remarkable.” It was. And so is he.
Elsewhere on Tuesday night, Lucas Pratto struck a late winner for Velez at Penarol, Joshiro Salazar headed an even later one for Real Garcilaso in Tolima, and Tijuana hammered San Jose 4-0, with Edgar Castillo grabbing what may just go on to be goal of the tournament.
Wednesday night saw Argentinian giants Boca Juniors finally get their season off and running after a difficult period of transition under returning legend Carlos Bianchi. Barcelona are rightly disappointed with how little they troubled a side very much on the ropes by the time they arrived in Ecuador, but Bianchi was left delighted after Juan Manuel Martinez and Chiqui Perez struck second half goals to secure a 2-1 win.
Wednesday also saw Chilean side Iquique defeat Emelec 2-0, and Fluminense come back from a goal down to return from Huachipato with a 2-1 victory – though Wellington Nem, who did score a goal to rival that of Castillo's, won’t thank us for highlighting this. Corinthians – forced to play behind closed doors following the tragic death of a teenager when a flare shot from the Corinthians fans section struck the young Bolivian, killing him instantly – beat Millonarios 2-0 thanks to goals from Paolo Guerrero and Alexandre Pato.
This week’s action drew to a close on Thursday as Sporting Cristal saw off Tigre 2-0, thanks in part to this golazo from Renzo Sheput; Libertad scored a big 2-0 victory over Palmeiras, and goals from Osvaldo and Luis Fabiano gave Sao Paulo a 2-1 win over The Strongest.
Brazilians love a good nickname. Some are better, and more inventive, than others, but they all make for great fun. Christening youngsters in the diminutive of whichever current star to whom they bear the slightest of resemblance is commonplace.
However, Palmeiras midfielder Patrick Vieira didn’t earn his name by dominating midfields and picking fights in the tunnel a la his French namesake, he was simply born with it.
The 21 year-old has shown some promise in his young career played out amidst the mayhem that was Palmeiras last season. 2012 Copa do Brasil winners under Big Phil Scolari, which confirmed their Libertadores place, the Verdao took their foot of the gas in last season’s Brasileirao. By the time they reapplied the pressure, it was too late and they were relegated for the second time in 10 years.
To make matters worse, this past week saw them lose last season’s star player Hernan Barcos to Libertadores rivals Gremio. The fans haven’t had much to shout about in recent months, and their misery looked as if it were to continue when Carlos Lobaton converted a penalty five minutes after the break that gave Sporting Cristal an equaliser in their Libertadores opener at the Pacaembu last night.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Patrick Vieira had spoken at length to the Brazilian media about the necessity for himself and other youngsters in the squad to step up to the challenge of the South America’s premier club competition.
“Thank God I had the opportunity to score, but I'm happier that we got the victory,” he said last night after slamming home a 68th minute winner from close range. “It was the biggest game of my life and the most important goal too, no doubt.”
“Patrick [Vieira] is still a young player,” said coach Gilson Kleina. “But nevertheless, he has been through many situations and we consider him experienced. He proved that… and that he can play at the high level of the Libertadores.”
The aforementioned Gremio got their campaign underway last night, too, as Chilean club Huachipato claimed a famous victory in Porto Alegre, running out 2-1 winners.
“We are so proud,” said Huachipato coach Jorge Pellicer “That is why Huachipato were league champions.”
In La Paz, Arsenal braved the altitude to face Bolivia’s The Strongest. Dario Benedetto’s excellent free kick equalised Alejandro Chumacero’s long range opener before the visitors imploded.
Damian Perez made it an uphill struggle for his side by receiving his marching orders ten minute in to the second half, and the game was up when a moment of madness saw Emilio Zelaya receive a straight red card for an inexplicable punch aimed in the face of Luis Melgar.
Melgar would have the last laugh, though, as he converted Pablo Esobar’s 83rd minute corner to give the Bolivians the win.
Elsewhere, Newell’s Old Boys saw off Olimpia 3-1 in Rosario thanks to goals from Horacio Orzan, former Liverpool man Maxi Rodriguez and the in-form Igancio Scocco, and David Macalister Silva hit the winner as Deportes Tolima beat Cerro Porteno 2-1.
Legends of the continent descended on the Copa Libertadores as the competition rolled into its second night of action last night, though some enjoyed a more fruitful night than others.
In Belo Horizonte, Ronaldinho was the star as Atletico-MG displayed their pedigree by despatching of compatriots Sao Paulo at Estadio Independencia.
The former FIFA World Play of the Year had once again flattered to deceive during another comeback for Brazil last week, but the 32 year-old has been reborn at club level since ripping up his contract with Flamengo last year.
His legs may have slowed in recent years but his speed of thought certainly has not, and it was his quick thinking that led to Jo opening the scoring on 13 minutes. While the Sao Paulo defence caught their breath as the hosts prepared to take a throw-in, Ronaldinho took up his position some fifteen yards beyond the last man and controlled before squaring for the former Manchester City and Everton striker to tap in from close range.
Atletico were forced to weather the storm at times as Sao Paulo went in search of an equaliser, with Luis Fabiano twice going close, but Ronaldinho would be the game’s protagonist, dribbling two defenders before crossing for Rever to head his side’s second with twenty minutes remaining.
Aloisio pulled one back for the visitors ten minutes later, and Ganso very nearly grabbed a late equaliser when he saw his shot flash past the post, but this was to be Ronnie’s night.
"Ronaldinho made the difference,” said coach Cuca. “He’s intelligent. You can't expect him to do certain things, like track back to defend, but his quality makes him a match winner.”
Over in Buenos Aires, two Libertadores legends looked on hopelessly as Boca Juniors surrendered their lead to Mexican club, Toluca. Juan Roman Riquelme returned to training on Monday, but is still some way off full fitness and had to take his seat in the stands.
Just below him stood the most winningest coach in the competition’s history, but Carlos Bianchi could do little as he team imploded following Santiago Silva’s first half penalty.
Julio Falcioni may not have been the most popular coach to ever have taken his place on the Boca bench, but the side been appear to have lost all the defensive solidity he achieved at La Bombonera prior to Bianchi’s return - and more errors at the back allowed the Mexicans to complete a famous turnaround as first Carlos Esquivel’s penalty and then a stunning finish from Edgar Benitez saw Toluca take all three points.
Elsewhere, Real Garcilaso played out a 1-1 draw with Independiente Santa Fe, Fred’s strike saw Fluminense past Caracas in Venezuela, and Juan Manuel Olivera’s winner gave Penarol a 2-1 victory away to Municipal Iquique.
The 2013 Copa Libertadores kicked off last night with a few veterans turning back the clock to rescue a point for Nacional, in the most controversial fashion, after the Uruguayans found themselves 2-0 down to Barcelona of Ecuador.
Former Boca midfielder Damian Diaz fired Barcelona ahead with stunning volley after 17 minutes, before his fellow Argentinian double their lead just ten minutes later following some fine approach play from Geovanny Nazareno.
The hosts looked down and out at the break, but their fortunes saw a dramatic turnaround after coach Chavo Diaz turned to a couple of old timers, throwing on Alvaro Recoba and Sebastian Abreu. Recoba was in inspired form and it was his 70th minute corner that found Abreu unmarked at the back post to pull one back.
The visitors were left furious as a frantic final few minutes eventually saw Nacional save a point. When Diaz skipped through in injury, time the game looked up for los Tricolores, but Israel Damonte’s blatant trip was somehow overlooked be referee Enrique Osses. The Chilean referee has been heavily criticised in both Uruguay and Ecuador last night, with Barcelona coach Gustavo Costas labelling him a "clown". Just one minute later, Recoba won half a yard on his marker and sent in a pinpoint cross for another veteran, Ivan Alonso, to head a dramatic equaliser.
Elsewhere, Universidad de Chile got their campaign underway with a 2-0 victory over Deportivo Lara thanks to a double from Sebastian Ubilla, while Facundo ‘Chucky’ Ferreyra’s own goal condemned Valez to a 1-0 defeat against Emelec.
With the Copa Libertadores Group Stage fast approaching, the only two Uruguayan teams remaining in the competition – following Defensor Sporting’s defeat to Olimpia in the first round – are the two “Grandes”: Penarol and Nacional.
With five and three continental titles respectively, they certainly have pedigree in the competition - with Nacional having won more points than anyone else in the tournament’s history, closely followed by los Carboneros.
Their reality, though, has changed since the last time they lifted the trophy –Nacional in 1998 and Peñarol in 1987. Both have since struggled to reach the final stages of the competition, the only exception being the miraculous 2011 tournament that saw Penarol lose out to Neymar’s Santos in the final.
This year the Montevideo giants have targeted the Libertadores as their biggest goal, though both are also attempting to compete domestically. Nacional seek their third league championship in a row, while Peñarol aim to stop that streak by claiming what would be only their third Uruguayan title of the 21st century.
And so the teams have brought reinforcements in the hopes of being able to fight on both fronts, something that has been a huge challenge for Uruguayan clubs. It’s hard to see anyone in the last two decades who has done well both domestically as internationally.
Nacional appear to have bought better players. The likes of Sebastian Abreu, Ivan Alonso, Juan Albin, former Stoke City midfielder Diego Arismendi and Colombian defender Efrain Cortes are their major the major reinforcements for the season ahead for a squad that already boasts the likes of Alvaro Recoba and Diego Luna.
Los Tricolores were drawn in a tough group with Ecuadorian champions Barcelona, Argentinian giants Boca Juniors and Mexican outfit Toluca. The debut at home against the Ecuadorians appears as a must-win match if their hopes to advance far in the competition are to remain. Tough trips and long journeys await the club in this new edition of the Libertadores, and there’s a lot of expectation as to whether the new faces in the squad can help the team advance beyond the group stage.
Meanwhile, Apertura champions Penarol – who get a chance to fight for the tournament regardless their poor performance in the Clausura – haven’t brought in as many or as famous names to the squad, but still want to make a good impression in the international scene.
They’re trying to tempt a gem from Liverpool’s youth system, the skilful striker Carlos Nunez, to complete what seems to be a very powerful offensive line. Juan Manuel Olivera, Marcelo Zalayeta, Fabian Estoyanoff and Jorge Zambrana had a great second part of the year in 2012, and Nunez would surely complement them, as would the club’s most recent acquisition, Argentinian Marcelo Fernandez – a speedy forward nicknamed “El Rayo” (Lighting).
Other new arrivals at Penarol are Uruguayan international right back Matias Aguirregaray, former Olimpia midfielder Miguel Amado and Walter Lopez who rejoins after a loan spell with Cerro Porteno in Paraguay.
These players, together with the solid team that lifted the Apertura trophy, aim to set the record straight domestically as well as putting on a good performance in the Libertadores. They will share group 4 with Argentinian champions Velez Sarsfield, Ecuador’s Emelec, and Libertadores debutants Deportes Iquique of Chile, against whom they being their campaign.
After some ugly incidents in last month’s clasico during a summer friendly championship, the general mood in the country is far from calm. Those incidents served only to increase tensions almost to boiling point.
Constant claims against journalists, the violent atmosphere of the “barras”, ineffective policing, and with the AUF refusing to act with sufficient force are just some of the many problems disrupting the party that Uruguayan football should be. Hopefully, the Copa Libertadores can make everybody focus on the sport rather than the mess Uruguayan football is becoming.