Going into the semifinals there seemed little possibility of avoiding a third consecutive all-Brazilian decider of the Copa Libertadores. And after the first legs have been played, a slim chance has surely become no chance at all.
Argentina's Velez Sarsfield, the last hope for the rest of the continent, were mauled 4-0 at home by Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo. It always looked like a huge task for the team currently lying 27th in the Argentine first division. Against the financial power of Flamengo, how could they possibly level the playing field? They could try worsening the playing field. In the hours before the match there was tension between the two sets of directors after Flamengo accused Velez of deliberately producing a bad pitch. Velez also tried to compensate with passion -- there was plenty coming from their supporters.
But to stand any chance they needed perfection on the pitch. Their dangerman Lucas Janson forced a smart save from Santos in the Flamengo goal, and Lucas Orellano rattled the post with a free kick. But like so many of Flamengo's recent games, the night turned on the opening goal -- which, in this case, from a Velez point of view, was infuriatingly soft. Centre back Leo Pereira hit in a speculative cross from deep, the home defence failed to clear and striker Pedro ghosted in to steer smoothly home.
Once ahead, Flamengo could show their pedigree. The second goal, on the stroke of half time, was a statement of the team's strongest virtue - the fluid front four. They all combined. Pedro played in from the left, attacking midfielders Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta combined, Gabriel Barbosa volleyed into the danger area where Everton Ribeiro continued his run to guide the ball inside the far post.
Velez had been undressed by a combination of attacking talent that almost certainly does not exist outside top class European football. In the end Velez could probably be thankful that the margin of victory was just four goals. Pedro added two more in the second half, completing his hat trick with typically unfussy right footed finishes and making it more likely that he will be named in the Brazil squad for this month's friendlies. National team coach Tite was frustrated that the lanky centre forward was spending so much time on the bench. But an injury to another attacking idol, Bruno Henrique, has opened the door, and with eleven goals to his name Pedro is now the top scorer in this year's Libertadores.
If he and Flamengo can surely start thinking about the Libertadores final, scheduled for Guayaquil, Ecuador, on Oct. 29, it is far from clear who they will be facing. The other semifinal, hangs in the balance after Athletico Paranaense's 1-0 home win over reigning champions Palmeiras.
As expected, the first leg was no classic. It was a tight affair where Athletico scored with their only shot on target. Right back Khelven is a useful attacking weapon with his crosses. Palmeiras failed to clear, teenage sensation Vitor Roque kept the ball alive and Alex Santana found the back of the net with a clever shot on the half turn. Palmeiras missed a couple of their suspended stars. The midfield dynamism of Danilo was impossible to replace, though his substitute Gabriel Menino was noted for his long range shooting. And left-footed set piece specialist Gustavo Scarpa was also missed. He will be back next week. Danilo, though, remains suspended, and could be joined on the sidelines by key playmaker Raphael Veiga, who limped off with an ankle injury and faces a race to get fit for the second leg.
Athletico ended the game with ten men. Experienced Chilean referee Roberto Tobar lets the game flow -- a very different criteria from that used by more whistle happy Brazilian referees. Midfielder Hugo Moura failed to adapt. He was already on a yellow when, thinking he had been fouled, he went to ground and handled the ball. Tobar brandished a second yellow for hand ball. Tobar soon reached for the red card once more to silence the protests of furious Athletico coach Luiz Felipe Scolari -- whose team held out with relative ease against an aerial bombardment from Palmeiras. Champions in the last two years, Palmeiras will have to come up with something more inspired in Sao Paulo next week if they are to retain the crown they have been wearing for the past two years.