Brazilian club Palmeira began their quest for the World Cup for clubs in early March with a Copa Libertadores victory over Argentina’s Tigre. Eleven months later, they ended with a disappointing 1-0 defeat in the semifinals against Mexico’s Tigre.
Since FIFA introduced the current tournament format in 2005, the semifinals have been a real test for the South American champions. They are so close to paradise, but at a time when the continent is losing its best players to Europe, they are often just unable to take the game into their own hands.
The defeat of Palmeiras is the fifth for the winners of the Libertadores at this stage. And it may even be the biggest pain – for three reasons.
The first thing Palmeiras really wanted was the title. All their local rivals – Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Santos – had been world champions before. Palmeiras fans were desperate to end the mockery of their neighbors and peers.
Second, because this match could have pleased Palmeira. They are a counter-attacking team and for the first time in the history of the current format, the South American champions have been given the opportunity to play on the counter.
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The Tigers took the lead. Their Brazilian coach Ricardo Ferretti chose the same eleven he fielded after the break in Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Ulsan Hyundai. But with a big difference.
He noted that Palmeiras scored Santos’ left winger Marinho in the Libertadores final. Ferretti switched wingers, with Javier Aquino on the right and Luis Quinones on the left, which disrupted Palmeiras’ defense and, along with attacking right winger Luis Rodriguez, ensured that his team dominated from the start. Palmeira goalkeeper Weverton made a brilliant save to stop striker Carlos Gonzalez’s header from a cross by Rodriguez.
Fault. Film Not specified.Palmeiras awaits the club’s title after a 1-0 defeat against the Tigers of Mexico. Photo: Colin McFedran/MB Media/Getty Images
Palmeiras responded by attacking its goal. They looked for long diagonals on the left, with winger Rani and left-back Matias Vina trying to get behind the defensive line. This allowed Vina to create a clear chance. A shot by Roni was blocked by goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman.
But, uh… Action and reaction… As Palmeiras moved forward, spaces inevitably opened up. André-Pierre Gignac, trading smartly behind Gonzalez, moved to the left to attack the weakest flank of the Palmeiras defense. The Frenchman teamed up with the Colombian Kinones, whose dribbles from long range kept the Brazilian defense busy throughout the match. Weverton saved two more penalty kicks and the Mexicans took the lead about eight minutes after the break.
Tiger moved the ball sharply to the right, Rodriguez dribbled across the field and tried to put Gonzalez outside the defense. Luan panicked and brought him back to Palmeira’s center. The free kick was free and Guignac made no mistake. Palmeiras had more than 40 minutes to get back on their feet and Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira called for a change. In attack, veteran midfielder Felipe Melo had to play in central midfield. The left-footed Gustavo Scarpa came into the field and sent the ball into the penalty area. But time after time they ran into the Tigers’ magnificent offside trap, a defensive technique rarely used in South America.
Palmeiras withheld the winning Libertadores goal ten minutes into added time. And they almost ran away when substitute Willian crossed on the left. Luis Adriano couldn’t get enough contact for his flick, but even then it could have been a personal goal. The ball came out of Rodriguez’s hands and was shot on goal.
Then it was blow after blow, but there was no clarity, and the weakness of their attacking repertoire was very disappointing. And fears. The third reason for the South Americans’ despair is that this match – against the first Mexican team to reach the World Cup finals – could be an indication of the future.
The merger of the MLS and the Mexican league appears to be more than a suggestion. This raises the possibility that the North American pool will rival European dominance and put South America further on the map.
The sale of Brenner in Sao Paulo late last week is a good example. He is a young striker and he is in the process of moving to FC Cincinnati. The MLS has sent some big names from Argentina, Uruguay and further north. But Brenner’s deal will make Brazil respond.
There is still a chance to salvage some glory for Palmeira. They return to action on Thursday in the playoffs for third place. If Bayern lose to Egypt’s Al Ahly on Monday, the Brazilians have a chance to overtake the reigning Champions League champion. They also have two games left in the final of the Brazilian Cup against Gremio. But they will be deeply disappointed – and a little worried – that they are not competing for the world title.