Sergio Romero did it again. Argentine giants Boca Juniors drew all six of their knockout games in the Copa Libertadores, and the goalkeeper came up big in the penalty shootout in all three two-legged ties. Across the games he faced 11 spot kicks -- and extraordinarily saved six of them.
The first shootout came against Nacional of Uruguay, then versus compatriots Racing and now against Palmeiras in the semifinals. The two stops he made in Sao Paulo on Thursday night were from the top penalty takers of Palmeiras, Raphael Veiga and Gustavo Gómez. It broke the hearts of the Brazilians while also putting a dent in their domination. The last three finals have been all-Brazilian affairs but now Boca, who fell to opposition from that country in the last three years, will be present in the final on Nov. 4.
In their fourth consecutive semifinal, Palmeiras went into the tie as favourites, but there were underlying problems for coach Abel Ferreira. His squad this year looks thin; midfielder Danilo, for example, has not been adequately replaced since joining Nottingham Forest. And the loss through injury of wily attacker Dudu has been a huge blow. The goals have dried up.
Boca had the better of the first leg, a goalless draw last week in Buenos Aires. Palmeiras surprisingly stuck with the same lineup for the return game -- which in retrospect was a mistake.
Boca took the lead with only their 12th goal in 12 Libertadores games when Uruguayan striker Miguel Merentiel, remarkably on loan from Palmeiras, got behind their defence and squared for Edinson Cavani to slide home. Blunt in the first half, Palmeiras made changes at the interval, introducing the pace and guile of youngsters Endrick, who will move to Real Madrid when he turns 18 in July, and Kevin, and they began to build pressure.
But Boca's Manchester United old boys act held firm, with Cavani leading the line, Romero secure and Marcos Rojo organising the defence. Twenty minutes into the second half, though, Rojo's impetuosity got the better of him. He slid through Kevin, picked up a second yellow and was sent off. From this point on the Argentines had little to offer but blanket defence, and they soon lost their lead when Palmeiras left-back Joaquin Piquerez blasted a long range shot past Romero. The keeper might have done better but, as is the problem with deep defence, he was unsighted by his own teammates.
Could Boca hang on? Busy little Palmeiras striker Rony nearly sealed matters with a magnificent trademark overhead kick, but Romero plunged left to make the save, and then kick away from Endrick. The keeper was just getting warmed up for his heroics. And after just five minutes of stoppage time -- a flaw in an otherwise sound refereeing performance from Andres Matonte, because Boca did everything to run the clock down -- Romero had his moment as the game finished 1-1 on aggregate.
Romero was the only first-choice player to start Sunday's big local derby at home to River Plate in the league. Fielding a reserve side on such an occasion is very unorthodox, and Boca lost 2-0. But they can now celebrate their first Libertadores final for five years -- and the possibility of their first title since 2007.
In the final in the Maracana, though, they will kick off as underdogs -- and not just because the final does not go straight to penalties if scores are level after 90 minutes. Boca will be playing away from home. Their game takes place in the stadium of their opponents, Fluminense of Rio de Janeiro.
Both legs of the all-Brazilian semi between Fluminense and Internacional were stirring affairs and, as the better side for most of the 180 minutes, Inter will spend a lot of time wondering how this one got away.
There were two big takeaways from last week's 2-2 draw in Rio. Fluminense were unable to defend in open space against Enner Valencia, Inter's Ecuadorian World Cup striker. But Inter have real problems lasting the 90 minutes. The interplay between these two factors decided the game.
Fluminense picked a more cautious side for the second leg, taking out striker John Kennedy and adding an extra midfielder. But it did not prevent Inter from controlling the game, and without the pace of Kennedy it meant Fluminense were unable to push their opponents back. Inter took an early lead through a header from Argentine centre-back Gabriel Mercado, and could have been further ahead at the break.
On came Kennedy at half-time, and Fluminense began to have more attacking options -- but it meant that space opened up for Valencia. He produced one magnificent run from his own half and was just blocked as he set to pull the trigger. He won a free kick out on the right, and met the cross with a free diving header that seemed impossible to miss but went just wide. And he latched on to a through ball to race away at goal only to put another shot wide.
By this stage the tie should have been over but Inter's lack of lung power kept the door open. Fluminense had created next to nothing but in the last 10 minutes they stole the game. Their Argentine sharpshooter German Cano was now finding space between the Inter lines, and he slipped Kennedy through to score with a neat chipped finish. Inter were stunned, and penalties loomed. But then Cano found space once more, played out to the right for Yonny Gonzalez whose low cross was helped on by Kennedy for Cano to stroke coolly home -- and Fluminense won 4-3 on aggregate.
The 35-year-old Cano has wandered all over Latin America, always scoring goals but flying under the radar. Now he is a star, and this was his 12th goal of this year's Libertadores -- matching the total of the whole Boca team. With home advantage Fluminense are clear favourites. But Romero is waiting.