Copa Sudamericana reaches its climax as Junior and Atletico Paranaense meet
Amid all the fuss about the River Plate-Boca Juniors game being transferred to Madrid, it is easy to forget that a continental final will take place on South American soil this week and next. The Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent, comes to a climax with a two-legged decider between Junior of Colombia and Atletico Paranaense of Brazil -- and the home-and-away format means that the matches are taking place at opposite ends of the continent.
This Wednesday, they meet in Barranquilla, high up on Colombia's Caribbean coast, in sapping heat and humidity. A week later, the return game takes place in the more temperate climes of Curitiba in the south of Brazil. Junior's magnificent Metropolitano stadium has been the base for all of Colombia's successful World Cup qualification campaigns, and it has been Junior's stronghold in their run to this final. They have won all four home games in the competition without conceding a goal.
On Wednesday, though, they will be without star striker Teo Gutierrez, who was harshly sent off in last week's semifinal win over compatriots Santa Fe. The veteran Gutierrez has often been involved in controversy, but he brings undoubted class to the attack, combining well with left-footed playmaker Jarlan Barrera, a cousin of the great Carlos Valderrama. The hosts have plenty of pace from Luis Diaz, Daniel Moreno and Yoni Gonzalez, but they will struggle to replace the guile of Gutierrez. Barrera will look to combine with midfielder Victor Cantillo, a key figure in establishing the rhythm of the team. When Cantillo plays well, Junior usually play well, but it will be fascinating to see how they will cope with the absence of their main striker.
If Junior are 100 percent at home in the competition, the same can be said for Atletico away in their past four trips. This is not easy to explain. Away form proved the major problem in their domestic campaign. Last Saturday, fielding a reserve side, Atletico beat Flamengo of Rio in the Maracana stadium -- only their second win on the road in 19 trips. The league points have almost all been picked up at home, where an artificial pitch makes life difficult for the visitors.
In the Sudamericana, meanwhile, they have been enjoying their travels. Will they seek to impose themselves in the first leg, taking advantage of the absence or Teo Gutierrez? Veteran Argentine Lucho Gonzalez runs their show from midfield. Pablo is a clever centre-forward who drops deep to construct, with the flying pair of Marcelo Cirino and Nikao, a right- and left-footer, respectively, using the space down the flanks. Left-back Renan Lodi is another interesting attacking weapon.
In addition to finding themselves at opposite ends of the continent, there are some other contrasts between the two finalists. Atletico have completed their domestic season, finishing a creditable seventh. Junior, meanwhile, still have to round off their campaign in the Colombian league, where they have made it through to the final against Medellin.
Then there are the coaches. Junior are trained by Julio Comesana, a veteran Uruguayan now in his seventh spell with the club. Atletico's Tiago Nunes is almost half his age and is in his first major job. But he has made an impressive start, taking over a club in relegation danger, dragging them up the table and leading them to the biggest final to be played in South America in 2018.