There was no mistaking that this was a Copa Libertadores blockbuster final as the Ciudad de la Plata was blanketed by floating confetti and blood-red smoke from flares and fireworks ahead of kick-off.
The Estudiantes aficionados, doing their best to cover the ground in red and white, eventually greeted the home side out on the pitch with a thunderous reception after a delay as Los Pincharratas look for the upper hand in the first leg.
The Argentines went straight on the attack and pinned the visitors back in the opening exchanges in what was a high-tempo start. And it took all of three minutes for tempers to boil over when Schiavi cynically shoulder-charged Kleber to the ground before kneeing the Brazilian in the back as players from both teams quickly gathered around the referee to make their case heard.
But it was Cruzeiro who had the first glimpse of goal when Ramires’ long-range attempt was deflected out for a corner. From the ensuing delivery, Leonardo Silva thumped his far-post header wide.
Estudiantes’ first real chance of the game came in the 12th minute when Veron curled a sumptuous dipping free kick from 20 yards out, but Fabio dived to his right at full stretch to tip it over the bar.
Cruzeiro left-back Magrao then had a glorious opening on 15 minutes to test Andujar when he was presented with a clear shooting opportunity just outside the box, but he dragged his tame effort well wide. Straight to the other end, Fabio was called into action again when he made a reflex block to palm away Leandro Benitez’s close-range half volley.
The intensity of the contest dropped off slightly as both sides tussled for midfield supremacy and committed unnecessary fouls. But it was A Raposa who started to wrestle control of proceedings, and they gradually crept closer and closer to the Estudiantes goal. However, neither side could create any clear-cut chances.
It wasn’t until the 43rd minute that things started to open up again. Gaston Fernandez was released clean through on goal down the left wing; but as he galloped into the box, he opted to square it to the middle instead of taking a shot, and his low cross was easily intercepted. A minute from the break, Veron latched onto a loose ball, but his swerving volley from 25 yards out was brilliantly saved by Fabio.
After a frustrating first period, Los Pincharratas marched out for the restart with renewed optimism. Alejandro Sabella’s men began the second half with the same vigour. Three minutes in, Estudiantes had two brilliant quick-fire chances.
First, Boselli was released into the box with a pinpoint through-ball, but his stinging shot was parried away. And from the resulting corner, Desabato found himself completely unmarked from three yards out, but his bullet header was fisted over the bar by the superlative Fabio.
Cruzeiro knew they had to relieve the pressure immediately and they did just that when Kleber tried his luck to stun the hosts, but his ambitious half volley from 30 yards bobbled harmlessly wide. Jonathan queued up next, but his piledriver from distance was easily gathered by Andujar.
As was the case in the first half, the chances quickly dried up as the match got physical, and it threatened to spark out of control at times as the challenges got more cynical. It didn’t help that the referee kept ordering Veron to step out to the touchline for the medics to clean up a bleeding gash on his right cheek.
Estudiantes tried to lift the game back up again when, on 68 minutes, Enzo Perez did superbly to dance around two defenders down the left flank and clip in a cross for Boselli, but he was unable to keep his header down.
The Brazilians’ next best chance came on 74 mintues when Ramires’ cross found Leonardo Silva, but the header at the far post flashed agonisingly wide.
In the 80th minute, Cruzeiro should have taken the lead. Magrao drilled in a delicious cross from the left, which Andujar hesitated in coming out to collect. He eventually made a late dive to tip it away, but it fell to kindly to Kleber. The forward, however, smashed the rebound wide with the goal gaping in front of him.
The gilt-edged miss sparked the visitors to life, and three minutes later,
Estudiantes started to run out of steam as the final whistle approached. Substitute Salgueiro did have one last crack a minute from time when he jinked past two defenders inside the box, but his final shot flew marginally wide of Fabio’s left post.
Despite their dominance, the Argentines will be relieved to head to
Estudiantes: Andujar – Cellay, Schiavi, Desabato, Re – Enzo Perez, Brana, Veron, Leandro Benitez (Maxi Nunez, 75’) – Boselli, Gaston Fernandez (Salgueiro, 81’)
Cruzeiro: Fabio – Jonathan, Anderson, Leonardo Silva, Magrao (Fabinho, 85’) – Henrique, Marquinhos, Wagner, Ramires – Kleber,
Estudiantes: Leandro Benitez (14’), Schiavi (26’), Desabato (66’)
Cruzeiro: Wagner (39’), Kleber (42’), Magrao (64’)
KS Leong, Goal.com