By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Fluminense have one foot in the quarter finals of the Copa Libertadores after defeating Paraguayan side Club Libertad 3-1 last Thursday. After a delay of over an hour due to a problem with the stadium lights, Fluminense started the game strongly, before suffering a lapse in concentration that allowed their opponents back into the tie. However, a strong finish, enhanced by magnificent goals from Marquinho and Conca, gave Fluminense a clear advantage before Wednesday’s encounter in Asuncion.
These days, it is not easy being a Tricolor. It has become a running joke amongst fans that before elation must come a period of panic. True to form, Fluminense put their supporters through the mill on a night when they controlled the first half with such authority progress in the tournament seemed a foregone conclusion.
As the players walked onto the field, Fluminense fans unveiled a banner with “Guerreiros Tricolor”, meaning “Tricolor Warriors”, referring to last weeks in Buenos Aires after Fluminense secured qualification for the knock-out stages. Unfortunately, their inspirational motto was lost as the lights went down and play was postponed for over an hour.
Just before 11PM the game finally kicked-off, and Fluminense began at a frightening pace and with just four minutes gone took the lead. Conca crossed from the left, Edinho headed the ball on and Rafael Moura headed over the line before Libertad goalkeeper Vargas could claw the ball out.
Fluminense pressed on in the first half; Libertad’s tactics left a lot to be desired. Too often Flu’s midfield was afforded acres of space to pick passes and play without pressure. Fred and Rafael Moura combined well in attack, and the former should have put the hosts two up in the dying moments of the first period, volleying wide from ten yards out.
After the interval complacency began to set in and Libertad seized the initiative. After fifteen minutes of intense pressure, the Paraguayans got their reward. Ayala put in a dangerous cross and Ricardo Berna ran from his goal-line before hesitating.
His indecision was critical; Gamarra jumped up and looped an easy header over the stranded keeper. The fans did not spare Berna, who made an identical error in the Taça Rio semi-final against Flamengo to allow Thiago Neves to equalize.
The goal geared up Flu. For the next ten minutes their form of the first half returned, resulting in a glorious strike from the often unheralded Marquinho. Collecting the ball and jinking past two players, he sent a crisp low shot into the bottom corner of the net.
This time, Fluminense did not dwell on their advantage and pressed for a third. Just three minutes later it arrived, Conca curling in a free-kick from 25 yards.
From then on in, it was easy living. Libertad created one more moment of danger, three minutes into injury time when Ricardo Berna made up for his earlier error. Gamarra tried a speculative long range effort which the goalkeeper did well to tip over.
The result left the players confident of reaching the next round. “Everyone here believes we can be champions,” said Ricardo Berna. We did not fall in the difficult moment.” Fred echoed his team-mates sentiments. “Tonight we had the characters, when we weren’t playing well, to score two goals.”