Tonight sees the return of the 2013 Copa Libertadores with the first semi-final between Olimpia Asuncion and Independiente Santa Fe.
Both sides topped their respective groups in the earlier stages of the tournament. Santa Fe seen off Gremio on goal difference before emphatically eliminating Real Garcilaso 5-1 over two legs. Olimpia knocked out Copa Sudamericano finalists Tigre in the Final 16 before defeating Brasileiro champions Fluminense in the Quarter-Finals. Despite getting this far, it is the winner of the other semi-final, Newell’s versus Atletico Mineiro, who is expected to be the clear favourite for the Copa Libertadores Final. It would however be foolish to write-off either off these two sides and Olimpia in particular have a very rich history in this tournament, having already won it three times (most recently in 2002).
Expect this to be a very tight nervy game. Olimpia will fear defeat and will play very conservatively, Santa Fe will look to stay tight and attack in the few moments when the Paraguayans over-commit themselves.. Olimpia have been very strong at home in the tournament, most notably annihilating the best team in Argentina Newell’s Old Boys 4-1 in the group stages. Santa Fe though have conceded a few goals in away matches and if Olimpia smell blood early, they have enough quality to put three-four goals past them. The one real hope that there could be goals in this is if Olimpia feel they have to finish the tie tonight through fear of playing at altitude in the away leg in Bogota. This could perhaps drive Olimpia to score three or four goals.
For Oilimpia, and in this first leg, there will only be three men weighed with the responsibility of winning this tie – Juan Manuel Salgueiro, Fredy Bareiro and Juan Carlos Ferreyra. Salgueiro was last week named by Conmebol as the second top performer on the continent and going by his performances in the Copa Libertadores this year, it cannot be argued. Time and time again he has made the difference for Olimpia and brought home the big goals, including a priceless double in the previous round to progress past Fluminense and a hat-trick in the group match against Newell’s to seal their dominance of the group. The Oliimpia attack team up beautifully together. Salgueiro plays off of Fereyra who is the big target man upfront and focal point of Olimpia’s attack, very good with his chest, near impossible to move off the ball and possesses a deceptively delicate touch. These two will be vital tonight as they are the two clear stand-outs in this side and Santa Fe will more than likely issue out some of the rough treatment to both. Bareiro feeds off of the chemistry between these two and along with Salguerio, he is joint second top scorer in the tournament with five goals a-piece so far. Fereyra has been struggling with a thigh problem for a number of weeks now though and it is touch and go whether he will start tonight.
For Santa Fe, the three players who have made the difference so far are former Boca attacking midfielder Omar Perez, and forwards Wilder Medina and Cristian Borja. Perez supplying these two will be the only hopes of goals for Santa Fe from open play. There’s a strong chance they could be isolated figures in Asuncion tonight. Borja especially has a great strike rate in this year’s Copa Libertadores (scoring 4 goals) but surprisingly hasn’t been prolific outside of it.
Although Independiente Santa Fe are going through arguably the club’s strongest spell in their history both domestically and on the continent, I still fancy Club Olimpia to progress here, so I’ll go for a 2-0 home victory. They have had the tougher run-in so far in the competition and knocked out two very strong sides. There is just a feeling about them in this tournament and I expect them to lay the foundations for qualification to the final with a clean home victory tonight. When Olimpia hit their rhythm they can play at an awesome pace, and possess an aggression about them that makes Paraguayan football very exciting. They also have a justified fear of playing at altitude in Bogota for the second leg and this will add extra motivation to their cause to get the tie as close to finished as possible tonight.