River Plate end Gremio’s Libertadores dream

It was all too much for Bressan, who conceded a penalty and was sent off (pic: Reuters)

Gremio’s good run in the Copa Libertadores, and their hopes of winning the competition for the second year in a row, came crashing to an end last night.

After doing the hard bits of winning in Buenos Aies and taking a lead in the second leg tie, Gremio suffered an agonising defeat against River Plate and exit from the Copa Libertadores in the semi final on Tuesday. They can blame injuries and suspensions, and point to a VAR decision turning the game, but this defeat will be hard to take.

Everton Cebolinha, their star winger was not fit enough for a place in the starting lineup, and had to make do with a place on the bench. He came on for Maicon, who limped off with an injury in the second half, but he was unable to change the game – in fact, he missed a great chance to give Gremio a 3 – 0 aggregate lead. Gremio were also without their talismatic playmaker Luan, who was suffering from an injury, while Andre, their main striker was out, as was Walter Kanneman, their reliable centre back.

Understandably, Gremio set up to hit their Argentinean rivals on the counter attack given the missing players and the fact that the onus was on River Plate to come out and attack after Gremio won the first leg 1-0 in Argentina. And while Gremio weren’t creating much, the strategy appeared to be paying dividends when their right back Leonardo scored for Gremio after a mishit corner late in the first half (yes, Brazilian teams sitting back and hitting other teams on the counter attack still get their full backs in goalscoring positions).

Gremio seemed to be heading for their second Libertadores final on consecutive seasons, and started the second half well too; Everton missed a great chance to make it 2 – 0. But it all went horribly wrong in a short space of time. First, Borre escaped the Gremio marking and scored with a header, with eleven minutes to go. And then, a shot from a River Plate was deflected off Bressan and seemingly out for a corner.

Nobody would have complained if a corner was given (in fact, the River Plate players were appealing for a corner), but the VAR team asked the referee to have a look, since the ball actually touched Bressan’s hand. But it was blasted at him from a few meters away. It most definitely wasn’t an intentional handball. When the referee finally gave the penalty to River Plate, Bressan and the rest of the Gremio team were livid. Bressan got a second yellow card for his complaints and was sent off. The penalty eventually went ahead and Pity Martinez calmly tucked it away. 2 – 1 to River Plate and no time for Gremio to react. It would be River Plate who would classify on away goals after a late smash and grab.

Tough for Gremio to take, particularly with such a ridiculous refereeing decision deciding things so close to the end. They now need to focus on the Serie A for the rest of the season, where they currently sit in 5th place, 11 points behind the leaders Palmeiras. Nobody can deny that Gremio are one of Brazil’s best teams, probably Brazil’s best team on their day.

You might just say that this loss was just one of those things in football. It probably was. But to be hyper critical, you could say that Gremio’s squad does not have as much strength in depth as the likes of Palmeiras or Flamengo, which has cost them. It certainly has cost Gremio during their league campaign with Renato Gaucho, at times, fielding reserve teams in the league and prioritising the Libertadores and Brazilian Cup. Their focus on the cup competitions and not having the biggest squad worked over the last couple of seasons – they won the Libertadores last year and the Brazilian Cup in 2016 – but it looks like 2018 is going to be a trophy-less year.

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