Copa Libertadores semifinals on a knife edge after first legs

Abel Ferreira, the Portuguese coach of Brazilian club Palmeiras, could hardly contain his joy when he turned up at La Bombonera, the legendary stadium of Argentina's Boca Juniors. It was a ground, he said, that he had only ever seen on television. But now he had arrived to contest a Copa Libertadores semifinal first leg.

Ferreira, though, is no novice to the Libertadores. This is his fourth consecutive semifinal, and the first two times his Palmeiras team went on to lift the trophy. He is a highly promising coach -- a little in the mould of compatriot Jose Mourinho in that exaggerated histrionics and safety-first approach come together with a keen brain and a capacity to both organise teams and develop individual players.

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This year, Ferreira deserves special credit for keeping Palmeiras in the hunt for two titles. In addition to the Libertadores, his team are second in the Brazilian league, but his squad lack depth and the loss of injured winger Dudu has come as a blow. The goals have dried up and, with three of Boca's four knockout matches ending in goalless draws, the 0-0 the two teams played out in Buenos Aires was entirely predictable.

Ferreira tried his best. Concerned with the threat of Boca's left-sided Valentin Barco, he kept full-back Mayke on the right wing for extra defensive cover. But that meant he moved versatile striker Rony to the left wing, hoping that he would cut in on the diagonal and get behind the Boca defence. It never really worked, and Palmeiras did not threaten.

Boca, meanwhile, were able to build up a head of steam. The occasional quick link-up between Barco and Edinson Cavani caused problems, and when the team circulated the ball well in midfield they were able to work space for the full-backs to advance and send in dangerous crosses.

Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton was forced into a couple of smart saves, though one fumble on a Barco shot almost allowed Cavani to turn home at the far post. At the other end, Boca's Sergio Romero had nothing to do. Though his penalty saving speciality will be very important in Sao Paulo next week if no one manages to break the deadlock in the second leg on Oct. 6.

The other Libertadores semifinal is also all square, 2-2, after the first leg. But the all-Brazilian game between Fluminense and Internacional in the Maracana was very different from the Boca-Palmeiras clash.

If one was characterised by caution, the other was defined by courage. Two attack-minded coaches sent out their teams to impose themselves on the opposition, and the outcome was a rousing spectacle.

Fernando Diniz of Fluminense, also the current Brazil national team boss, sprung a surprise with his selection. Against an opponent which likes to defend with a high line, the presence of quick striker John Kennedy was expected. But two strikers, two wingers plus statuesque playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso was not. It left the team light in midfield -- the area that Eduardo Coudet, Internacional's Argentine coach, likes to flood.

Fluminense's own Argentine, sharpshooter German Cano, gave them an early lead. But the story of the first half was Fluminense's inability to defend against Enner Valencia, Internacional's Ecuadorian striker. Valencia ran them ragged, and forced the expulsion of Samuel Xavier, Fluminense's right-back, shortly before the interval. Inter were instantly level, with a header from Spanish full-back Hugo Mallo -- true to their name, the team have seven different nationalities in the starting XI.

Fluminense were forced into a comprehensive reorganisation at the interval, making three substitutions and defending deeper in the second half. Even so, they fell 2-1 down to a well worked Alan Patrick goal.

Inter tried to go for the kill. But the physical condition of the side has been questioned all through the season, and they seemed to lack the stamina to maintain a stranglehold. Fluminense, meanwhile, attempted to play their way down the field whenever they could, with Liverpool's target Andre driving them forward from midfield. They were well worth their equaliser, a typically smart Cano volley from a corner.

The draw, then, leaves matters delightful poised for the return game in Porto Alegre. Fluminense will be concerned by their inability to defend against Valencia in open space; Internacional will be worried at their problems lasting the full 90 minutes.

Both weaknesses will be placed under the microscope and put to the test next week as fans of both clubs count down the days until the return match on Oct. 5.