Libertadores final: difficult night for Neymar but advantage Santos

Neymar struggled against some tough marking (Getty Images)

After the drama of volcanic eruptions in Chile and the subsequent ash cloud that has covered most of southern South America, the Copa Libertadores final first leg finally got the go-ahead to be played on Wednesday night as scheduled.

In front of 60,000 screaming Peñarol fans (including Diego Forlán), who put on quite a spectacle, Santos will be the happier of the two teams after they came away from the match with a 0-0 draw. Not a bad result at all for Neymar and co. especially because away goals count for nothing in the final, unlike previous rounds.

The clean sheet comes down to some lousy finishing from Peñarol who wasted several decent chances. But credit must also go down to Santos coach Muricy who, since taking over at Santos, has turned an awful defence into one that concedes very few goals. All the more impressive was that Santos were without three first choice defenders last night; captain Edu Dracena was suspended after stupidly getting himself sent off in the last minute of the semi-final against Cerro Porteño while right-back Jonathan and the evergreen left-back Leo were both injured. It has to be said that Leo’s replacement, Alex Sandro, was caught out time and time again and Peñarol should have made him pay. He is decent going forward but a TOTAL liability at the back. Never before have I seen such a spatially unaware defender.  Perhaps he should be tested for some performance un-enhancing drugs….

Despite the 0-0 score line, it was a very lively game and Santos also missed chances of their own through who else but Zé Eduardo. From now on I’ll just call him Zé Donkey. Playmaker Ganso was also missing for Santos, having failed to recover from his thigh injury in time to play. Elano failed to fill Ganso’s playmaker role and so once again the burden of responsibility for creating chances and scoring goals fell on the young shoulders of Neymar. He never shies away from responsibility but he had a really tough night after he was booked for diving midway through the first half.

The booking was a case of his reputation (as a diver) haunting him. As he dribbled past his marker, he appeared to be punched in the place that it hurts a man most. The ref missed this sly hand and it looked like the perfect dive and hence the yellow card. The fact that it took Neymar about five minutes to get up, further unimpressed the referee who, according to Neymar, threatened to send him off three times in the first half. For the rest of the half, Neymar seemed afraid to take the ball and run at defenders as he always does in case of getting fouled and booked for diving again. He complained at the break and coach Muricy complained – in very Portuguese sounding Spanish – to Uruguayan journalists that he might have to substitute Neymar to avoid him being sent off and missing the second leg in Brazil.

Neymar is not a bad guy and is a smart player and so perhaps after last night he’ll look at the error of his ways and look at why he is apparently victimized when playing in international competitions (he was booked for diving against Holland recently). Brazilian football commentators and authorities could also look at their attitude towards diving and overprotecting their star players. But, showing just what a smart player he is, Neymar got on with the game in the second half and didn’t rise to provocation from the rough Uruguayan defenders. To cap his second half rise to maturity, with five minutes to go he took the captain’s armband when stand-in captain Elano (captain in the absence of Edu Dracena) was substituted.

Santos will be confident of victory in front of their own fans next week in Brazil but aren’t yet taking anything for granted. They know what a dangerous team Peñarol are on the counter attack away from home. Just ask defending champions Internacional, who after drawing in Montevideo, sensationally lost at home to Peñarol and were dumped out of the competition in the second round.

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