It is all Brazil and Argentina in the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions League, and practically the last kick of the quarterfinals ensured that Brazil will have three teams of the last four.
The sole Brazil vs. Argentina clash of the round was a predictably hard-fought affair between Estudiantes and Athletico Paranaense, which was still awaiting the first goal of the tie going into the 95th minute of the second leg. In front of their own fans, Estudiantes had done the bulk of the attacking, their game mainly based on an aerial threat from Fernando Zuqui's wonderfully struck set pieces. Athletico defended stoutly, though there was one moment which will not be forgotten in a hurry. After a corner Luciano Lollo turned the ball home, only for the goal to be ruled out because another player was in an offside position. True, Athletico had the worst of marginal VAR decisions in the first leg, but there seemed no reason to chalk off this goal, since Jorge Morel neither touched the ball nor impacted the goalkeeper's vision.
Athletico, then, got a break. But with penalties looming they made their own luck, causing real danger to the Estudiantes goal for the first time in the match when David Terans and Vitinho combined to cross for 17-year-old wonderkid Vitor Roque to glance over the line. For the second successive round, Athletico snatched qualification right at the death, and now they move into a semifinal against defending champions Palmeiras.
Athletico coach Luiz Felipe Scolari took Palmeiras to their first Libertadores title in 1999, and has a worthy successor in the Portuguese Abel Ferreira, who has won the competition in the last two years and whose extraordinary run of success continued with a win on penalties over Brazilian domestic double winners Atletico Mineiro.
After the fireworks of last week's 2-2 draw, the return game in Sao Paulo was a poor spectacle. Ferreira's team tend to thrash weak opponents but keep things very tight in the big games. Almost nothing of note had happened for half an hour when Palmeiras had key midfielder Danilo sent off. Ferreira reorganised his team, with quick striker Rony moved from centre-forward to the wing. It left his team with few options on the counter-attack, but harder to play through, especially for an Atletico side in poor form and lacking any fluency. Atletico could not even capitalise when late on Palmeiras were down to nine after Gustavo Scarpa was sent off.
There was a brief flurry of drama at the end. Hulk of Atletico missed the clearest chance of the night, and then saw a cross-cum-shot come back off the far post. It went to penalties where, as usual, Ferreira had a plan. His players consistently hit to the left side of keeper Everson, and it paid off. Weverton, the excellent Palmeiras keeper, made one save from inexperienced substitute Rubens, and Palmeiras earned the right to dream of a third consecutive Libertadores title, winning the tie 6-5 on spot kicks.
But the team they beat in last year's final are out for revenge -- and as it stands the most probable conclusion is another decider between Palmeiras and Flamengo.
The Rio giants were 2-0 up from the away leg against Corinthians, and merely needed to manage their advantage. Corinthians did make a fight of it in the first half, which they probably shaded even though it was goalless. Coach Vitor Pereira made an attacking substitution at half-time, which may well have been too soon. Flamengo have a frightening array of attacking talent, and one slip was always likely to be enough to decide matters. Sure enough, a single collective lapse in concentration allowed Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta the freedom to skip down the left flank and curl in a superb low cross for centre forward Pedro to convert on the slide. There was no way back, and in the end Corinthians -- who had Bruno Mendez sent off -- were fortunate to lose by just the single goal.
Flamengo will be firm favourites in their semifinal against the sole remaining team from Argentina, Velez Sarsfield, who managed to beat compatriots Talleres home and away to win 4-2 on aggregate. Velez made a dreadful start to the competition, managing just two points from their first four games. Their young side has grown in confidence as they have progressed, and three clean sheets in the last four matches is a good sign. But it will be tough indeed for them to stop a third consecutive all-Brazilian final.