Feature

A Copa Libertadores stoush that's worth watching

Gustavo Bou of Racing competes for possession with Guarani's Julio Cesar Caceres in the first leg (AAP) Source: AP

You can hardly blame me for having occasional pangs of jealousy when I think about the journalists on the other side of the Atlantic who cover the UEFA Champions League but an impending battle in South America's equivalent has me thanking my lucky stars.

They get to see the best players from the four corners of the globe, in the arena where it really matters – where they want to prove their class to themselves and their peers.  All of this takes place in magnificent stadiums in an atmosphere that respects and gives value to the spectacle.

The Copa Libertadores can hardly compete.  Recent versions of the FIFA Club World Cup have served to confirm the view that the distance between top level club football in Europe and South America has never been wider.

True, my adopted continent remains a magnificent producer of raw talent – indeed, it can be argued that the national team game in South America has never been stronger.  That, of course, is when all the star names come back from Europe briefly to represent their countries.  It is wonderful – a magnificent pleasure and an enormous privilege – to catch some of these players on the way up. 

However, Europe is getting its hands on them younger and younger.  The South American club game resembles a donut; an enticing ring of promise at one end, and some quality too at the other end, with veterans coming home to round off their careers. Yet nothing of substance in the middle.

That does mean, though, that the youngsters are not the only attraction.  It can also be fascinating to follow some of the final steps of the old timers.

In many cases they have made their money and have no pressing financial need to force their bodies through the rigours of a few more campaigns.  The motivation, then, might be refreshingly pure – a desire to wear their old colours once more, to write themselves into the history books of the club that may have been their first love.

No one who saw Juan Sebastian Veron’s final few years with Estudiantes will forget them in a hurry.  Now club president, Veron brought technical excellence, tactical wisdom and emotional commitment to the team – and veteran centre forward Diego Milito has been doing something similar with Racing.

One of the finest sights in the continent’s football in the last few months has been the Racing front combination of Milito and Gustavo Bou.  Milito has the vision and the quality that makes the game look easy.  Bou supplies the thrust and power.

Racing began the Libertadores like a greyhound; in its first two games Tachira of Venezuela was beaten 5-0 away, and Guarani was seen off 4-1 at home.  On Milito’s prompting, Bou chalked up consecutive hat-tricks.  Already he had scored more goals than anyone managed in the entirety of last year’s competition.

Things have been a bit harder since, and much of that has to do with Guarani.  The Paraguayan side regrouped after that mauling in February and its Spanish coach Fernando Jubero tweaked the formation - switching to a back three. 

In the rematch it beat Racing 2-0 in Asuncion – the venue last week when they met once more, this time in the first leg of the quarter-final.  Again Guarani kept a clean sheet and again it won the game.  It will protect a 1-0 lead in the return match – where one of the key men will be centre-back Julio Cesar Caceres.

This, perhaps, is not a household name wherever the game is played.  Now 35, Caceres may not have been a top liner.  His European experience is limited to Nantes in France and Gimnastic in Spain.  But he is one of the rare players who has done well for both River Plate and Boca Juniors.  And he has real World Cup pedigree; he played in three finals tournaments, ever present in 2002 and 2006, and appearing against New Zealand in the 2010 quarter-final campaign.

I first recall seeing him in 2001 operating in the midfield for Paraguayan club side Olimpia.  The following year he was withdrawn to centre back and it was instantly apparent that he had found his niche. 

I was present at a game in the group phase of that year’s Libertadores, when Olimpia had a man sent off in the opening minutes away to Flamengo.  It held on for a goalless draw and did so in relative comfort – thanks to Caceres.  His reading of the game and timing in the tackle were immaculate.  It ranks as one of the finest defensive performances I have ever seen - and it got him into the national team.

These were an eventful few months in his young career.  After returning from the World Cup he helped Olimpia win the Libertadores.  It is the biggest title of his career and it was only natural that when his wanderings around Europe and Latin America were done, he returned to his original club. 

He played for Olimpia in 2011 and 2012, but was not an automatic first choice, and joined Guarani, a traditional club but a much smaller one, at the start of 2013.

Caceres clearly felt that he had plenty still of offer – and after the switch to the back three he has emphatically proved his point.  He is the spare man in the middle, free to read the danger and block the space.  And in Guarani's last six games, including two against Racing and two against Corinthians of Brazil, it has conceded just two goals.

Another clean sheet mid-week will put Guarani into the semi-finals.  It will be harder than the first leg – when Racing had a man sent off before the interval.  Milito was sacrificed early in the second half. There will be no holding back this time. 

Last time out there were a couple of moments when Caceres, otherwise immaculate, struggled to hold the power of Bou.  Those moments will be multiplied in the return match.  Bou is that rare animal – a fine 25 year-old who is still to be found in South America. 

He is something of a late developer – a child prodigy at River Plate who spent a few years in the wilderness, even being loaned to Ecuador.  In the last few months, under the guidance of Milito, he has really blossomed. 

Marshalling Guarani’s back three, Julio Cesar Caceres has been handling anything the continent can throw at him but, when it really matters, can he cope with the class of Milito and the power of Bou? 

It is a clash that might even engender some jealousy in those journalists who cover Europe's elite.