By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – There were contrasting emotions for Tricolores and Vascaínos this past week as they saw their respective sides start their 2012 Copa Libertadores campaigns. For the first time in history, Rio has three clubs representing the city in the competition: Vasco, Fluminense and Flamengo.
While Vasco and Flu started their campaigns last week, the Rubro-Negro play their first match tonight (Wednesday, February 15th) against Lanús of Argentina. The tournament will end in a two-legged final, with the games to be played on June 27th and July 4th, with the winner entering the FIFA World Cup championship in December.
Last Tuesday (February 7th), Fluminense narrowly overcame Argentine outfit Arsenal 1-0 in a fiery affair in front of almost 29,000 fans.
In a hard fought contest that saw Flu reduced to nine men following the dismissals of Wagner and Lenadro Euzébio, an unusually solid defensive display allowed Abel Braga’s side to walk away with all three points. Like so often last year, Fred made the difference, scoring the game’s only goal after just three minutes.
Despite ensuring victory, the performance gave little encouragement to supporters that Braga is close to finding the right balance to his team after bringing in so many new faces. The side have wobbled recently in the Campeonato Carioca and have collected just one point from their last three games after Vasco defeated them 2-1 on Sunday.
Initially it looked like Flu had put any uncertainty behind them as they began at a frenetic pace. But Fred’s early strike failed to spur the side on and instead contributed to a lack of energy and imagination from their expensively assembled front-line.
Had it not been for the athleticism and quick wits of Diego Cavalieri, it would have been leveled as he blocked efforts from Leguizamón and Zelaya. As the clock wound down Flu were hanging on after the two dismissals but saw the game out with a victory.
There was to be no such luck for Vasco the following night. In front of a refurbished São Januário, Vasco failed to maintain their early Carioca form as they fell 2-1 to Uruguayan outfit Nacional.
In their first Libertadores match for eleven years, the Rio side succumbed to nerves before experienced opponents who walked away with a deserved win.
Looking lost on the pitch, the Carioca club became mere spectators as Nacional rang rings around them, taking a 2-0 lead through Scotti and Sánchez, the killer second coming less than a minute into the second half.
Felipe and Juninho didn’t gel in the middle of the park and failed to keep pace with the rhythm Nacional dictated. As a result, Vasco couldn’t press their opponents and the game became too easy for the visitors.
Alecsandro reduced the deficit with seventeen minutes remaining, steering home Juninho’s cross, but when the team needed a lift from the crowd it failed to materialize. Nacional brought on the vastly experienced Alvaro Recoba, whose assured touch was in start contrast to Felipe.
In the final minute, Juninho whipped in a trade mark free-kick and saw Tenorio nod the ball into the back of the net. But the euphoria was short-lived as the linesman correctly raised his flag for offside against the Ecuador striker.
It proved a tough reintroduction to South America’s most prized football tournament, but any nerves will have to be dashed as they must now seek to pick up points on the road to progress.