Neymar leads way in Santos' dominating victory over Penarol
Neymar put Santos ahead with a shot past Sebastian Sosa into the corner
Ganso and Arouca also added a creative spark to the Brazilians' offense
Santos' defense looked frail at times, but Penarol couldn't take advantage
Doggedness has its limits. Penarol battled its way to the Copa Libertadores final and fought out a 0-0 draw in last week's first leg, but it was outclassed by Santos in the second Wednesday night.
The 2-1 scoreline hardly reflected Santos' superiority in a game that for long periods seemed like an extended exercise of attack against defense. Neymar, so subdued last week, was excellent, while Ganso added zest to Santos' midfield and Arouca had a superb game breaking from deep.
As they had in the first leg, both teams began with a nominal 4-2-2-2, although the emphasis of each was very different. Penarol this season has been all about defensive resilience, and in last week's first leg was probably more open than most expected. This week, it was back to the more familiar defensive setup, Nicolas Freitas and Luis Aguiar sitting very deep in midfield to provide an extra layer of cover for the back four, and the two full-backs barely venturing forward.
Corujo, the right side of Penarol's two attacking midfielders, had been a key presence in the first leg, fighting a fascinating duel with Santos' left-back Alex Sandro, but that battle was not rejoined this time, partly because Alex Sandro had made way for Leo, and partly because Mathias Corujo's role was far more defensive as he dropped deep to try to counter the danger posed by Neymar.
Having been rendered largely ineffective by veteran left-back Dario Rodriguez last week, Neymar operated almost entirely on the left Wednesday night. Whether because of that, or because of the return of Ganso in midfield, he looked far more threatening, drifting infield and repeatedly troubling Gonzalez. The right-back was eventually booked for a cynical tug on Neymar just after the half-hour, but he should surely have been shown a yellow card for a late foul on the forward five minutes earlier. In a sense the injury that forced him off seven minutes before halftime may have been a blessing given a second caution seemed only a matter of time.
Gonzalez went off with what appeared to be a knee injury, caused by a studs-up challenge from Neymar that caught him mid-shin. It earned the forward a caution and, while only he will know how deliberate the foul was -- he was still on his feet, so there was no obvious recklessness -- it could easily have earned him a red.
He stayed on, though -- and given the treatment he'd received there was probably justice in that -- and got the opening goal two minutes after halftime. It came from just the sort of angled pass with which Ganso had fed him throughout the first half, but this time it was played by Arouca. Picking the ball up deep in midfield, he accelerated through a couple of half-challenges, exchanged a neat one-two with Ganso -- via a backheel -- and continued his run diagonally across field. Emiliano Albin, understandably, was drawn to the ball, and that created the space for Neymar.
It's rare that a player has a trademark finish, but Neymar's shooting is almost as distinctive as his hair. Again and again over the past two seasons, he's shaped to curl an orthodox finish to the far post and then dragged his shot near, and he did so again, the ball squirming between Sosa and the post. The goalkeeper always looks at fault in such situations, but the percentage play is to protect against the shot across him; Neymar should take credit for his intelligence in noticing and exploiting the convention.
Still, while Neymar, with his goal, his extravagant mohawk and interest from the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea, will always attract the headlines, just as important, were the contributions of Ganso and Arouca. Back after a six-week injury layoff, Ganso gave the Brazilians a creative spark they lacked last week, constantly finding angled balls. Most commonly the diagonals were aimed right to left, trying to isolate Gonzalez and then Albin against Neymar, but occasionally they went the other way, and it was a left-to-right ball that teed up Ze Eduardo after 34 minutes. The forward, who will join Genoa before the start of next season, had a disappointing game last week and he wasn't much better this, slicing his shot futilely into the side netting. Arouca, meanwhile, created the play from deep, a rare player not only in his willingness to carry the ball out from deep, but in his discernment in doing so.
Yet for all Santos' domination, there was always a sense that it was fragile defensively. Muricy Ramalho made three changes to the back four -- his attacking intent signaled by the shift of Danilo from an attacking role on the left of midfield to right-back -- but the offside line was just as shambolic as it had been in Montevideo. Then it seemed that every time a half-cleared dead ball was returned to the box, a chance came Penarol's way; in the second leg, Penarol rarely created the sort of pressure to generate that sort of opportunity, but simple long balls caused Santos problems they really shouldn't have.
With a kinder bounce of the ball, Juan Manuel Olivera might have been set clean through by a simple up and under from Freitas midway through the first half.
Penarol, though, didn't have the wherewithal to take advantage of Santos' frailty --- Matias Mier was anonymous -- and a second goal, after 69 minutes, seemed to have settled the game. It began with Neymar, wide on the left, sweeping a majestic pass from the left flank inside to Elano, a ball exquisite in both conception and execution. He paused, waited for Danilo to overlap and slipped the ball into his pass. The full-back -- like Neymar, a member of Brazil's South American Youth Cup-winning team -- stepped inside Dario Rodriguez and then bent his finish around the lunge of Guillermo Rodriguez and the dive of Sebastian Sosa and in at the far post, a quite wonderful goal.
Resilience has been the key to the Uruguayans' progress to this stage, and just when the game seemed done, Fabian Estoyanoff, a minute after coming on for Albin, created a 79th-minute goal from nothing, his cross deflecting off Durval and in. It was hard to avoid the thought that a more aggressive presence on the right from the start, taking advantage of Neymar's attacking disposition, might have yielded dividends, but then it might simply have made Neymar even more dangerous.
In that final 10 minutes, as Penarol sought an equalizer and necessarily lost defensive shape, Neymar created a glorious chance for Ganso, who chipped the ball back across goal and saw Ze Eduardo head wide, and then hit the post. After all the doubts raised last week, this was Neymar's night.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.