This year’s Libertadores has thrown up some major shocks, and we approach the semifinal round with some fascinating matches ahead of us. Simon Edwards delves into the detail and the data to help you find the edge.
The semifinal stage of South America’s most important club competition features three Brazilian giants and the great Boca Juniors of Argentina.
This year’s competition has brought back some of the infamous unpredictability the league is known for, and it was great to see what Bolívar were capable of at the extreme altitude of La Paz, as well as Colombian debutants Pereira make their mark on the tournament.
That said, we now have two huge semifinals filled with superstars and wonderkids, and teams built around very different tactical approaches.
I will outline what to expect from each game, and give my predictions for how it may play out.
The first semifinal features two huge Brazilian clubs who have been slightly in the shadow of the likes of Flamengo and Palmeiras in recent years.
The Maracanã will host the final, and will include at least one Brazilian team.
Will it be the free-flowing, expressive Fluminense, or the experienced, solid, and clinical Internacional?
Fluminense play a slick, attractive, and dynamic style, which has really caught the attention of South American soccer fans and earned manager Diniz the Brazil job (albeit on a short-term basis).
The Rio club have been celebrated for embracing creativity, invention, and instinctive interchanges. Diniz empowers his players to make decisions on the field, while providing the framework to ensure a balanced defence. When the team press, they do so in numbers and with great energy.
In possession, they move the ball quickly, with players free to instinctively and naturally create overloads. Rather than stretching the opposition with positional discipline and methodically building to a two vs. one situation, Diniz allows his players to naturally follow the flow of the game.
At times, three or four of the midfielders will be occupying the same area of the pitch, but their invention, dynamism, and ability to move the ball in tight spaces means they can work their way through and then drive at the opposition. Fluminense have many quick players who excel in multiple areas – that’s what makes them so dangerous.
Jhon Arias and Keno have the qualities of wingers, but with their energy, work ethic, and creativity have shown they can be very effective as free eights when they have permission to drift and make things happen.
Supposed Liverpool target André anchors the midfield with great quality and composure, while Paulo Henrique Ganso, once considered a wonderkid comparable to Santos teammate Neymar, has found a late resurgence as a creative midfield orchestrator. In the midst of the unpredictable attacking movement of Fluminense, Ganso appears with zen-like composure pulling the strings.
Offensively, you have the very clinical and composed Argentine Germán Cano alongside the energetic John Kennedy.
The defence is martialed by the seasoned, uncompromising - and slightly terrifying - Felipe Melo, with former Real Madrid man Marcelo in line to return from a three match Libertadores ban.
Fluminense have reached the semifinal following a professional performance against Argentinos Juniors, drawing away and winning 2-0 at home, before a 5-1 aggregate win against Olimpia of Paraguay. They dominated at home in the first leg with a 2-0 win before taking an early lead in the second, where they resisted pressure from the hosts and finished the job late on the counter.
Fluminense are a very exciting team, and one the neutrals have really enjoyed. They can be inconsistent, but when it works, it really works.
While Fluminense are fluid, unpredictable, and at times inconsistent, their fellow Brazilian rivals Internacional are far more structured, disciplined, and measured in their approach.
The two-time Libertadores champions were favourites to win their group and achieved that, although qualification was only decided on the final day. They finished one point ahead of Uruguay’s Nacional, and two points ahead of Colombia's Deportivo Independiente Medellín (DIM).
In the round of 16, they faced their biggest test of the tournament so far, but eventually eliminated Argentine giants River Plate in a dramatic penalty shootout. They were beaten 2-1 away, but turned the tide around at home. When Alan Patrick put the Brazilians ahead 2-0 it looked as if they were through. Defender Robert Rojas equalised in the final minute to take it to penalties, and after a dramatic, protracted shootout, Internacional were the victors.
Enner Valencia gave them an early lead away in the extreme altitude of La Paz against the surprise package of this year’s competition, Bolívar. The hosts pushed for the equaliser with 23 shots on goal, looking to capitalise on the unpredictable movement strikes will often take at the thin air of 3,600 metres above sea level.
Internacional showed their resiliency and toughness, returning to Brazil where they had advantage. As predicted, there was minimal drama in the second leg, with the Colorados dominating possession and Valencia scoring twice.
This Internacional side are highly professional and experienced, with quality players that have performed at the very highest level in Europe. There are a handful of younger players still on the rise like tricky winger Mauricio (22), and the hard-working US national midfielder Johnny Cardoso, but the team is mostly built around consistent, seasoned performers.
This Internacional side are highly professional and experienced, with quality players that have performed at the very highest level in Europe.
Almost all of their starting 11 have spent large parts of their career in Europe before returning to Brazil in pursuit of their continent's most important title. They know how to manage a game, they use the ball well, they have the discipline that comes from top level European soccer, and they can get results.
That core down the middle, with Gabriel Mercado at the back, Charles Aránguiz pulling the strings, Alan Patrick creating opportunities, and Ecuadorian striker Valencia to top it all off, is key to their success.
Internacional’s ceiling isn’t as high as Fluminense’s, but they will take their chances, and they have the experience to carefully manage a huge two-legged tie, not to mention all the tension that brings.
This one is really tricky to call. Fluminense has the more attractive, creative, and dangerous side, but Internacional are solid, experienced, and focused. The ceiling for Fluminense is higher than Internacional, but in such a high profile, high intensity game, teams win by playing their very best soccer.
If Internacional are to win, it will be because they have stopped Fluminense’s rhythm, and the game has become more controlled and formulaic.
Pinnacle has Fluminense as very strong favourites for their opening home leg in Rio de Janeiro. I can understand why, since at their best, they are an amazing team. That said, this perhaps underplays their off days and weaknesses. Domestically, for example, they are way off the leaders, and their defence hasn’t been the best.
When it works for Flu, they are unstoppable, but when it doesn’t, then an opponent can clog the midfield and grind out a result. I agree that a home win is most likely, but I could definitely see a path to a low-scoring game with Internacional stealing a win.
If it is your typical low-scoring, nervy, cautious semifinal first leg, then Internacional have just as good a chance as Fluminense. If Flu gets into their rhythm and it clicks, then they could blow their opponents away.
The second semifinal features a Palmeiras side who, in recent years, has been a real force in this competition against the world famous Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires.
Palmeiras combine quality with organisation and discipline, while Boca have some talented youngsters, as well as proven and experienced stars.
The Brazilians have shown greater composure and consistency, but Boca have dragged themselves through some really tough games to get here, and they are now on the verge of another historic final.
Boca Juniors are a huge club with great individual talent that have somehow dragged themselves to this semifinal despite rarely impressing and sometimes struggling. That said, they are here, and they have a combination of international match winners and interesting youngsters who could make history with the roar of La Bombonera driving them on.
Boca progressed from probably the easiest group this year, which included Colombian debutants Deportivo Pereira, Monagas of Venezuela, and Chile’s Colo-Colo. They drew to Monagas and were beaten by Pereira. They only conceded two goals over six games and scored nine – although this number was significantly boosted by a final day 4-0 win against Monagas.
In the round of 16, they beat Nacional of Uruguay on penalties. They had zero shots on target in a 0-0 away draw, and then matched Nacional’s four shots on goal in a dramatic 2-2 result in Argentina. They won on penalties thanks to a nonchalant finish from 18-year-old Valentín Barco, a player both Manchester City and Brighton are currently fighting over.
In the quarterfinals, they faced fellow Argentines Racing, and no goals were scored over 180 minutes. Boca won the shootout however, scoring all four of their penalties, while Racing only converted once.
In the league this year, they have averaged less than one goal per game, while their defensive record is good but not spectacular. They finished the opening tournament of the year with a +9 goal difference, while rivals River had +30.
It certainly hasn’t been a great run, but if they win the Libertadores, then none of that would matter - and that is definitely possible.
Palmeiras are a club with great recent history in the Libertadores, a world-leading academy, smart investment, experienced players, and a great level of discipline. They are one of South America’s cup specialists, and have a talented squad to pick from.
At the start of the year, Palmeiras are always at the top of my list of favourites. They can play expressive and expansive soccer when the opportunity arises, but they are also very happy to manage a low-scoring game. In recent years, we have seen them put on a show in the group stage, before proceeding to be both ruthless and measured in the knockout rounds.
In this year’s group stage, they started with a shock away defeat at altitude to Bolívar. It’s never an easy place to play, and the Brazilian season was just starting up with the state championships. They followed up that early stumble with five straight wins, scoring 15 goals and conceding four.
In the round of 16, they had a tough test against fellow Brazilian contenders Mineiro, but they scored early in the first leg and that was enough. In the second leg, Mineiro dominated possession, but Palmeiras generated more chances on the counter.
They then demolished impressive underdogs Pereira 4-0 away, and cruised through a 0-0 draw at home in the quarterfinals to reach this stage. This is a side that can be expansive and creative when the time is right, but also shut up shop and kill the opposition’s momentum. They will waste time if they have to, they can use tactical fouls, and they can frustrate and unsettle opponents.
Palmeiras arethe ultimate cup specialists, plus they have plenty of quality. Dudu, Raphael Veiga, Rony, Gustavo Gómez, Marcos Rocha, and Weverton Pereira da Silva know what it takes to win big titles. Artur Victor Guimaraes is a talented, creative winger. They have wonderkid Endrick in attack, the exciting Richard Ríos, and complete midfielder Gabriel Menino.
Palmeiras arethe ultimate cup specialists, plus they have plenty of quality.
Palmeiras don't have too many top internationally renowned stars, but they do have exciting youngsters, as well as a very solid, experienced group of players still performing at a high level who know how to win this competition.
Pinnacle has Palmeiras as narrow favourites for the first leg, which will be played at La Bombonera in Argentina. The fact the odds lean towards an away win is very telling, and truly reveals how inconsistent and chaotic Boca have been so far.
The incredible atmosphere at home combined with the experienced individual quality they have should count for a lot, but Pinnacle doesn’t see it as enough.
Palmeiras are very strong, and real experts in managing a tie over two legs. I think the best odds are on a low-scoring, uneventful draw, which would set Palmeiras up nicely to win at home. The Brazilians have the stronger squad, more experience in the final round of this competition, and ultimately, more cohesion.
If Palmeiras can keep their cool and get the job done away, then I can see them getting a goal, putting pressure on Boca, and picking them off again on the counter. I would lean towards a first leg draw, and then an assured Palmeiras win in the second.