Nearly 50 years have gone by since anyone has won three in a row, and that record is safe for a while. In Tuesday's semifinal Palmeiras fell 3-2 on aggregate to fellow Brazilians Athletico Paranaense, who will seek to lift the trophy for the first time in the decider on Oct. 29.
Athletico were one up from the first leg, but on a cold, wet night in Sao Paulo their lead did not last long. They appeared to have set themselves up in a conservative 4-1-4-1, but their aggregate lead had vanished within three minutes. Right winger Agustin Canobbio was caught in possession with full-back Khellven ahead of him. With the flank exposed, former Manchester City stalwart Fernandinho should not have gambled. But he did, and he was turned by Ze Rafael, who played into the box and the ball fell off a defender for Nottingham Forest-bound Gustavo Scarpa to sweep home.
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The recent form of Palmeiras has been scratchy but now they found plenty of rhythm, and Athletico were frequently at full stretch keeping them at bay, offering little more than occasional bursts from 17-year-old wonderkid Vitor Roque.
But on the stroke of half-time, a moment involving Vitor Roque changed the tone of the evening. He was caught by an ugly challenge, late and high, from Palmeiras centre-back Murilo and, after consulting with VAR, the referee sent the offender off.
In the previous home round Palmeiras lost two players to straight red cards. A third comes across as more than an unfortunate coincidence. Palmeiras on the field are a faithful reflection of their coach, Abel Ferreira. The young Portuguese is highly promising and extremely talented, with a depth of planning that frequently astounds his players, but there is something of the tortured soul about him. The cool mind exists together with hot blood. He is often accused of overstepping the mark on the touchline with his vociferously manic protests, and it is entirely possible that his team have been contaminated with this all too visible lack of emotional control.
There was no immediate price to pay for going down to 10 men. Athletico's immediate priority appeared to be avoiding a red card of their own. They made three changes at the interval and within 10 minutes Palmeiras were two up on the night and 2-1 ahead on aggregate -- with a goal that has become typical of the team.
A fine developer of players, Abel has managed to improve veteran right-back Marcos Rocha, who supplies attacking threat with his long throw ins. This was the route of the Palmeiras goal earlier in the year against Chelsea in the Club World Cup final, and it struck gold again.
This time Paraguayan centre-back Gustavo Gomez was able to hold off a challenge ahead of the near post and loop a clever header over keeper Bento and inside the far post. Seemingly from nothing, Palmeiras had seized another vital goal and were now just over 35 minutes away from yet another final.
But another characteristic of Abel is that he is extremely risk averse. His side are capable of massacring weak opponents but, in the tough games, he invariably likes to keep things tight. He dropped his team deep and Athletico read the signs.
Athletico's coach is the former World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari but, after being sent off in the first leg, he was not allowed to be on the touchline. The big call, then, was made by his assistant Paulo Turra. Palmeiras were lying close to their goal. It wore out their front players, who now had huge spaces to cover. And it also called for the introduction of Athletico centre-forward Pablo. Against a team playing higher up the field, his lack of pace would have been a problem. But his time had come, and within two minutes of his introduction Pablo had levelled the aggregate scores. Athletico made progress down the right and played back to the edge of the area, where Fernandinho switched the play, picking his spot with a precise chip behind Marcos Rocha. Vitinho volleyed across the face of the goal, Vitor Roque turned it back into the danger area and Pablo turned in from close range.
There were chances at both ends, Vitinho curling just over for Athletico and Gabriel Menino of Palmeiras forcing a smart save from Bento at his near post. And with the clock ticking down, Palmeiras paid the common price for the deep lying defence -- the deflection.
Pablo laid square for Uruguayan David Terans to let fly with a left-footed shot. It flicked off a fellow Uruguayan, Palmeiras left-back Joaquin Piquerez, beat the dive of keeper Weverton and nestled inside the far corner. Athletico were home and dry -- and by their standards it had hardly even been dramatic. In both previous knockout rounds they were saved from a penalty shootout by a goal in stoppage time. This time they had six minutes plus stoppage time to endure. But they did it without alarms, and this forward thinking club from the southern city of Curitiba, finalists in 2005, can start dreaming of their first Libertadores title.
But if they were underdogs against Palmeiras, the same is even more the case in the final. Their opponents will almost certainly be Flamengo of Rio, who go into their home semifinal already 4-0 up against Velez Sarsfield of Argentina. Flamengo have got the better of Athletico in league and cup clashes recently, so it will be up to the veteran Scolari -- with some help from assistant Turra -- to plot another shock.