The world cup has barely left us and here we are, back in the thick of things, with the semi finals of the Copa Libertadores. Sam Kelly from Hasta El Gol Siempre is your guide.
Over two months after the quarter-finals ended, the semi-finals of the 2010 Copa Libertadores de América are finally upon us. It's been a thoroughly odd Copa to follow this year, but with only six matches left now (two legs of each semi, plus the two-legged final) we're just a few short weeks from knowing the identities of the next champions of South America.
The four remaining sides face up with an all-Brazilian tie between São Paulo and Internacional de Porto Alegre, and a clash of two countries who exited the World Cup at the second round stage, with Universidad de Chile (guess which country they're from) taking on Mexico's Club Deportivo Guadalajara, otherwise known as Chivas.
Tuesday night sees the first leg of the Chivas vs U de Chile tie, and it'll be eventful for more than just what's going on on the pitch; it'll also be Chivas' last ever home match at the Estadio Jalisco, before they leave the famous old stadium (shared with the city's other clubs) to move into the brand spanking new Estadio Omnilife with a friendly against Manchester United this coming Friday. Both Chivas' wins so far in the tournament have come thanks to strong home performances, and it could be imperative that they get another in the farewell to the Jalisco to see them through to the final.
Chivas were given a bye to the first knockout round of this year's Copa, having been kicked out of the 2009 edition along with fellow Mexicans San Luis Potosí over a row about swine flu. With the disease reported in Mexico at the time, CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, typically overreacted and announced that Mexican clubs couldn't play in the tournament for risk of spreading infection. That wasn't helped when Chivas defender Héctor Reynoso got fed up of the taunting of the fans and opposing players as his team were playing Everton of Viña Del Mar, Chile, and spat at one of his opponents.
The fallout of the row saw South American confederation CONMEBOL, after banning the Mexican sides, remember that they'd invited them in the first place because of all the lovely TV money they bring in. A deal to give both the remaining sides a bye to the same stage of the 2010 competition was quickly done. San Luis were useless when they re-entered, but Chivas are still going strong. Entering at the second round stage, they beat Vélez Sarsfield of Argentina 3-0 in the Jalisco, and then lost 2-0 in Buenos Aires. Next, they beat Paraguay's Libertad 3-0 in Mexico before losing 2-0 in Asunción in the quarter-final. Spotting a pattern here? No surprise, then, that Reynoso himself reckons Chivas need to win by 'a good few goals' in the first leg on Tuesday night if they're to go through.
Universidad de Chile are already a decent way into their season – halfway through the Chilean league campaign in fact – whilst the Mexican championship only started at the weekend, so the South Americans will probably be more match fit. They've lost Marco Estrada to Montpelier in France, but Walter Montillo, the attacking midfielder who starred in the away goals win over Flamengo in the previous round, will only leave for Cruzeiro after La U's Copa campaign is over. Chivas' most prominent loss, of course, is Javier Hernández, whose transfer to Manchester United is the reason for that stadium-opening friendly on Friday.
As for the Brazilians, Internacional's side have remained relatively stable. Arguably their two most important players, defender Pablo Guiñazú and playmaker Andrés D'Alessandro, are Argentine, and the main transfers during their winter break have been incoming – former star Rafael Sóbis returns from Al-Jazira in the UAE, as does midfielder Tinga from Germany's Borussia Dortmund – both were key when Inter last won the tournament, four years ago. Goalkeeper Renan also comes back to his boyhood club, but is unlikely to edge out first-choice Argentine Roberto Abbondanzieri. As well as this, they've got a new manager in Celso Roth.
São Paulo also have a largely unchanged squad, but their form is very different. Inter sit fourth in the Brazilian championship, but São Paulo – who beat them in the league just over a month ago – are way down in 15th place, and haven't won in four matches since the championship started up again after the World Cup. Manager Ricardo Gomes will be on his way if they don't at least make it to the final. His replacement will most likely be Dunga. São Paulo haven't enjoyed a reputation as a great footballing side for a long time now, and that doesn't look likely to change for the forseeable future.
It's been a disjointed Copa Libertadores, then, this year. The necessity to drop two second-placed teams out to allow the two Mexicans in with their byes made the group stage all but impossible to maintain interest in, and the break for the World Cup hasn't helped the dramatic tension. Latin America is gearing itself to get excited again this evening though, for Chivas vs Universidad. The endgame is finally arriving. At last.
Sam also writes regularly for ESPN Soccernet and When Saturday Comes, and you can read his Argentine football blog, Hasta El Gol Siempre, here........but don't expect any coverage of the Copa Libertadores this week, as there aren't any Argentinian teams left in it, as Sam has pointed out. Through gritted teeth.