Commentary

The Copa Libertadores tightens

Neymar and Santos struggled; what to watch for in the quarterfinal second legs

Updated: May 21, 2012, 6:48 PM ET
By Tim Vickery | Special to ESPN.com

Igor Lichnovky/Rodolfo GamarraNorberto Duarte/Getty ImagesLibertad held Universidad de Chile to a 1-1 draw though the Chileans are favored to progress.

Chelsea's triumph in the Champions League must surely have given a boost to the last eight teams in the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent competition. Even the most rabid Blues fan would find it hard to argue that Chelsea is indeed the best side in Europe, but the West London side will represent the continent this December in the Club World Cup, a tournament taken extremely seriously in South America.

The Libertadores quarterfinalists, then, will be dreaming of glory, all too aware that this year presents the best chance in years of claiming the world title. First, though, they have to be crowned kings of their own continent. It is no easy task. The eight remaining clubs are all big hitters, one of the main reasons that last week's first leg ties were such tight affairs.

The other explanation lies in the away goals rule and though it's relatively new in South America, its effect is being felt. Originally introduced in Europe to encourage the visiting side to attack, a consensus is growing that these days it is instead more likely to lead to a cautious approach from the home side in the first leg.

This certainly applied to last week's action. The only away goal was scored by the dynamic and attractive Universidad de Chile, who returned from Paraguay with a 1-1 draw against Libertad and are now the clearest favorite to make it through to the semifinals.

The all-Brazilian clash of Vasco da Gama and Corinthians finished goalless in Rio de Janeiro last week; battle will renew in Sao Paulo on Wednesday. The other two Brazilian sides, meanwhile, must come from behind against Argentine opposition. Both Fluminense and Santos went down 1-0, away to Boca Juniors and Velez Sarsfield respectively.

The margins of victory could have been greater. Fluminense was missing its best players through injury and had left back Carlinhos sent off before halftime. Meanwhile, Santos was very disappointing.

In both games, though, the Argentine teams were cautious of overcommitting and leaving themselves open to the always formidable Brazilian counterattack. As such, Boca and Velez were more concerned with not conceding than they were with scoring a second goal, seemingly happy to settle for a single-goal victory. Should they have tried harder to force home the advantage when they were on top? Or are they sitting pretty in the knowledge that one goal in the return game will oblige their opponents to score three? Time will tell if their strategies were correct.

And along the way we will also learn a little bit more about Santos' wonderkid Neymar. The 20-year-old, already with 100 goals to his credit, is undoubtedly a magnificent talent. His running with the ball at pace, dribbling in restricted spaces, ability to assess situations and improvise at speed, uncannily composed finishing, plus a willingness to accept responsibility -- all are aspects of his game to be drooled over. The young Brazilian is surely on the way to global superstardom.

Part of that process is to be confronted with new challenges. The fascinating aspect of his team's clash with Velez is that this is the first time the Santos of his generation has met Argentine opposition. Last year Santos won the Libertadores without meeting a team from Brazil's neighbor and historical rival.

[+] EnlargeNeymar-Ganso
Juan Mabromata/AFP/GettyImagesGanso and Neymar couldn't make Santos click against the obdurate, energetic play of Velez Sarsfield. Will it be a different story in Thursday's second leg?

A star since he was 17, Neymar has been growing up in public, occasionally getting things wrong but more often getting them right. As his agent affirms, it is not often that he makes the same mistake twice. Neymar seems pleasingly at ease with his current place in the game -- ultra-confident in his own ability, in love with what he does, but also not carried away by the excesses of the hype that can surround him. Some of his compatriots place him at the same level as Lionel Messi though Neymar is always quick to point out that he has not yet reached anything like that standard -- and last week's game showed that he is correct.

One of the dangers of staying in Brazilian football -- shrewdly identified by national team coach Mano Menezes -- is that it places Neymar in a comfort zone. Defensive lines tend to play very deep, leaving lots of space on the field for the talented player to pick up possession and define what he intends to do. Moreover, over the past few years Brazil has become something of an island in terms of the criteria used by referees. Free kicks are given for minimal or no contact and there is a considerable cultural tolerance of diving.

In this sense, last Thursday's game in Buenos Aires was a bit like an introduction to European football and to the challenges Neymar will face when he finally does cross the Atlantic. Velez stayed much more compact that the average Brazilian side, going out of its way to squeeze Neymar's space. When he did manage to launch himself on a run, it ended with an extravagant dive -- punished with a yellow card from the excellent Paraguayan referee Carlos Amarilla.

There was one quick exchange of passes with his otherwise catatonic teammate Paulo Henrique Ganso that ended up winning Santos a free kick on the edge of the Velez area. What would Neymar produce? He scuffed his shot wide, showing that technically and psychologically it is much harder to produce the goods when given just one opportunity during the game rather than the usual six or seven.

Of course, his Santos teammates must take the blame for not giving Neymar a platform to perform. Indeed, for those who have followed the team this year, this was a very disappointing 90 minutes.

After winning the 2011 Libertadores Santos spent months dreaming of glory in the World Club Championship only to be brushed aside by Barcelona even more comprehensively than the 4-0 score might suggest. Coach Muricy Ramalho claimed in the postgame news conference that the massacre would have no effect on him or his team, but he clearly didn't mean it.

Ramalho has acquired a reputation for building pragmatic, solid sides with little scope for aesthetic considerations. "If you want to see a spectacle then go to the theatre" is one of his trademark lines -- or rather, was. In 2012 his men have clearly tried to incorporate some of the concepts applied against them to such devastating effect by Barcelona. They have tried to press the opposition higher up the pitch in the manner of the Catalan giants, and having won possession they have been less direct, more eager to retain the ball and elaborate some longer passing moves.

Until last week. In Buenos Aires, Santos showed little interest in holding on to the ball. Indeed, the Brazilians offered little in the way of constructive, collective ideas; it was more of a case of hoping to strike off a set piece or slipping Neymar in a rare counterattack. It was like watching a Muricy Ramalho team of old, as if the Barcelona game had never happened.

Much of this is surely due to a rule of football identified by the former England coach Terry Venables: The last thing you learn can become, under pressure, the first thing you forget. The trip to Velez was the hardest task they have yet faced in the Libertadores, this year or last, and faced with such a challenge the team reverted to type.

It will be fascinating to see which type they revert to this Thursday in the return game. Santos has chosen to stage the match in its own Vila Belmiro ground rather than taking it up the road to a bigger stadium in Sao Paulo. It is an option that would seem to give priority to the emotional over the technical; the fans in Vila Belmiro will create a cauldron of an atmosphere, but on a relatively small pitch, space will be harder to find for Neymar and company -- and space was the very thing lacking for the Santos wonderkid in last week's tight but fascinating first leg.

Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.