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Libertadores surprise Cúcuta may just go all the way

Posted: Tuesday May 29, 2007 11:03AM; Updated: Wednesday May 30, 2007 10:23AM
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Cúcuta Deportivo has knocked off Toluca and Nacional to set up a stunning Libertadores semifinal matchup with Boca Juniors.
Cúcuta Deportivo has knocked off Toluca and Nacional to set up a stunning Libertadores semifinal matchup with Boca Juniors.
Mauricio Duenas/AFP/Getty Images
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With a total of nine titles between them, Argentina's Boca Juniors and Brazil's Grêmio and Santos are no surprises as Copa Libertadores semifinalists. The same can't be said for the other member of South America's last four. No one could possibly have expected Cúcuta Deportivo of Colombia to get this far.

With even the continent's biggest clubs in a permanent state of flux, continually selling their best players, there is always the opportunity for surprise sides to come through in the Libertadores. Last year it was Libertad of Paraguay that shocked everyone by reaching the semifinals, eliminating Buenos Aires giant River Plate along the way.

This time Libertad almost made it again, but fell to River's archrival Boca Juniors in the quarterfinals. And Boca itself has every reason to remember the shock side from 2004, Once Caldas from Manizales -- the Colombians beat Boca on penalties to win the title. Now Cúcuta has to get past Boca if it is to make it to the final.

If Once Caldas was a surprise then, Cúcuta might be even more so. Going into the '04 competition, Caldas had the experience of two previous campaigns to call upon. And while it's a relatively small-town club, it had acquired a reputation for sound administration, carefully built up over a number of years.

Back then, while Once Caldas was enjoying its moment of glory, Cúcuta -- up by the Venezuelan border -- was playing in the Colombian second division in front of average crowds of 300. It has come a remarkably long way in a short period of time.

With support from the local mayor and some financial restructuring, it won promotion to the first division at the end of '05. Colombia stages two domestic championships per year, and Cúcuta was steady in the first and spectacular in the second, overcoming Tolima in a two-legged final to win its first title.

But it had every reason to approach its first Libertadores campaign with caution. Cúcuta was entering uncharted waters with a new man at the helm. Coach Jorge Luis Pinto left to take charge of the Colombian national team. In came Jorge Luis Bernal, a stocky, prematurely aged figure who had previously been with Tolima.

Fears of a tricky start to the Libertadores campaign were swiftly confirmed. Cúcuta drew its first three games -- two of them at home -- and managed a single goal in the process. In its fourth match it went down 3-1 to Cerro Porteño of Paraguay and seemed all but eliminated.

Then, in desperation, Cúcuta suddenly found the blend. Bernal tinkered with the system, replacing Pinto's 4-4-1-1 with a bolder plan. The goals started to flow. The rejuvenated team beat Grêmio 3-1 at home -- and then, to make it into the knockout stage, it had to overcome old rival Tolima on the road. In a thrilling game, two late goals from Panamanian center forward Blas Pérez gave Cúcuta a 4-3 victory, and on it marched.

A key part of the Cúcuta story is not just what it has done, but how it has done it. Once Caldas, for example, was a side that played well within its limitations. It defended deep, kept its back four close together, looked to draw the opponent forward, frustrate it and then thread passes through for its wide midfielders to speed away toward goal. Its success was admirable, but not always easy on the eye.

Cúcuta is playing a much more expansive game. Rubén Dario Bustos and Elvis González surge forward from their fullback positions to link up with the attacking midfielders, the powerful Alex del Castillo and the hugely impressive Macnelly Torres. Up front, gangly target man Pérez is partnered with the Argentine guile of Juan Manuel Martínez. With pace and skill, they are constantly looking to form attacking triangles. When it all clicks, they are a delight to watch.

All of their attributes were on show when the knockout rounds got underway. Cúcuta was drawn against Mexican power Toluca, and would play its first leg in its own, recently enlarged General Santander stadium. After just 25 seconds, its defense had been caught flat and it found itself a goal down. The crowd went quiet, fearing that its club's rise had come to an en end.

In fact, Cúcuta was merely finding its stride. Once the early nerves had settled, the Colombians were was soon in top form -- and when, just after the half hour, Toluca had a man sent off, Cúcuta caught fire, scoring four goals in 13 minutes. The final score was 5-1, a lead which Toluca never threatened to overturn in Mexico.

In the quarterfinals came three-time champion Nacional. The Uruguayans took longer to break down, but Cúcuta got there in the end. The Colombians built up a 2-0 lead which, with classy Walter José Moreno guiding the defense, they were able to hold in Montevideo.

And now they face Boca Juniors -- Juan Román Riquelme, Rodrigo Palacio, Martín Palermo and all -- starting on Thursday night. But Cúcuta has no need for an inferiority complex when it takes on the Buenos Aires giants. Of course, tradition dictates that Boca is the favorite.

And should Cúcuta overcome them, the Colombians will also be considered the underdogs against whichever team makes it through from the all-Brazilian semifinal between Santos and Grêmio. But with 16 goals in its last six matches, this year's surprise side has won the right to dream of the title.