River Plate win Copa Libertadores semi, Guarani exit with heads held high
Argentine giants River Plate last made it all the way to the final of the Copa Libertadores in 1996, when current coach Marcelo Gallardo was a promising playmaker on the substitutes' bench. Just less than two decades later, they are back again; a 1-1 draw away to Guarani of Paraguay was good enough to send them into the two-legged decider 3-1 on aggregate.
This, though, is a night when tribute has to be paid to Guarani. The tiny Paraguayan club produced a magnificent campaign. Spanish coach Fernando Jubero -- a name for the notebook -- and his players can be proud of what they have achieved, eliminating giants such as Corinthians of Brazil and Racing of Argentina before pushing River Plate all the way. Indeed, there were times in a wonderfully pulsating second half when it really seemed as though River's 2-0 first leg lead might be overturned.
This was a match that always held out the prospect of goals. After that defeat last week Guarani were obliged to chase the game. They fielded both their centre forwards, Federico Santander as the spearhead, and his usual reserve Fernando Fernandez operating just off him, making an attacking trio with tricky winger Julian Benitez.
The wing backs -- Luis De La Cruz on the right and Tomas Bartomeus on the left -- also pushed forward relentlessly, stretching the River defence, but also leaving space behind them that the Argentines could exploit on the counter-attack. River's most dangerous moments in the first half came when dynamic Uruguayan Carlos Sanchez broke down the right, or skilful Gonzalo Martinez had space for a run on the left, getting outside Guarani's disciplined back three.
The game, then, was all about the first goal. If it went to Guarani, then the Paraguayans were half way towards forcing penalties. If River managed a vital away goal, the Paraguayans would be left needing four.
Just after the hour, it was Guarani who took the lead, with a sweet move well worthy of their campaign. The ball was moved well from left to right, allowing Benitez the space to curl in a dangerous cross. Midfielder Martin Palau arrived into the box to meet it with a header, which hit the inside of the near post and rolled all the way across the face of the goal. Santander reacted quickest, hooking the ball across for Fernandez to turn home.
The whole tone of the game changed. Emboldened, Guarani took the match by the scruff of the neck. The River defence were rocking. Sanchez moved sharply to clear a header off the line. A second Guarani goal seemed only a matter of time.
It was then that River coach Gallardo played his trump card. Little Uruguayan attacking midfielder Tabare Viudez is one of those players with the talent to have achieved much more in the game. Now approaching 26, he was picked up early by Milan, and his wanderings have also taken in Mexico before spending the past three years in Turkey with Kasimpasa. Gallardo knows him well -- the pair worked together at Nacional in Uruguay, and believed in him sufficiently to bring him back to South America -- and to bring him on at a vital moment in the game.
With Guarani straining every Paraguayan sinew in search of a second goal, more space was opening up for the counter attack. Viudez brought the talent and the clarity to open it up in favour of his team. The decisive moment in the match came when his pass split the home defence and allowed centre forward Lucas Alario to score the away goal -- joyously celebrated by at least 10,000 traveling fans -- with a subtle lob over the advancing keeper.
The pass from Viudez was so good that it managed to cut out probably the outstanding player in this year's Libertadores, Guarani's veteran centre back Julio Cesar Caceres. Now 36, Caceres made his name winning this competition 14 years ago with Olimpia. This year, organising the Guarani back three, he has been quite superb, reading the game immaculately, showing magnificent timing in the tackle and making quality defending look easy. It was Guarani's great misfortune that Caceres was injured and unavailable for last week's first leg. With him on the field, they may not have suffered that 2-0 defeat. Indeed, with Caceres on the field, the only goal Guarani suffered in five intense knockout matches was the Alario lob that effectively ended their campaign.
And so it is River Plate who move on to the final. They await the winners of the second semifinal, which stands perfectly poised after the first leg, with Internacional of Brazil 2-1 up after the first leg and making the long trip to the north of Mexico to defend their lead against Tigres on Wednesday.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.