By Kyle McCarthy
Duvier Riascos found a berth in the Copa Libertadores semifinals placed directly at his feet in Club Tijuana’s 1-1 draw at Atlético Mineiro on Thursday night.
Tijuana could not have asked for a better man to take the potentially decisive penalty kick in second half stoppage time. He took his first half opener – dipped in controversy after a pair of potential fouls at the other end went uncalled and dispatched in style at the end of an incisive counter – with the precision expected from a player of his caliber. And Leo Silva presented him with the chance for his second after he scythed makeshift forward Pablo Aguilar to the ground to halt a prototypical route one move with the seconds ticking away.
Riascos assumed responsibility for success or failure when he stepped up to the spot. He embarked on a lengthy run-up from outside the penalty area and thumped the ball straight down the middle with Mineiro goalkeeper Victor leaning to his right.
Victor – with a flick of his left foot – somehow managed to kick the effort away as he dove to his right. The acrobatic save dashed Tijuana’s hopes of a famous victory and sent the Xolos crashing out of the Copa Libertadores on away goals after a 3-3 draw on aggregate.
Images: REUTERS/Washington Alves
The late penalty save excruciatingly captured the proceedings over the two legs in a nutshell. Tijuana could have booked a semifinal tie with Newell’s Old Boys based on the performances submitted in these two matches, but the Xolos lacked the extra bit of attentiveness, composure and quality required to seal a place in the last four.
For much of this second leg, Tijuana stood out as the better side. Xolos boss Antonio Mohamed aligned his players properly and sent them out to trouble the nervous home outfit. Riascos’ opener capped a fine opening period for the visitors. The late stages saw the Xolos produce several decent opportunities to hand Mineiro its first home defeat since August 2011.
Once again, though, the lack of precision in both penalty areas cost the Xolos dearly. Réver equalized four minutes before halftime after a desperate display of defending that included a silly foul from Oliver Ortiz on the right wing and a total breakdown at the backpost on Ronaldinho’s resulting service. Tijuana then squandered several chances – second half substitute Bruno Piceno, in particular, will lament Victor’s save in a one-versus-one situation inside the penalty area – to restore its lead in the second half after Mineiro failed to build on its equalizer.
Riacos may shoulder much of the blame for the departure, but the Xolos will look inward and wonder how exactly they managed to exit the competition. They acquitted themselves well over the two legs and perhaps deserved to go through. With a bit more solidity in the first leg and a bit more ruthlessness in the second, they would have dismissed Mineiro from the competition.
Instead of plotting for a semifinal, Tijuana now must take stock of its impressive Libertadores campiagn and start planning for the Apertura. The new season will present several awkward challenges with a manager to locate (Mohamed returns to Argentina after this match), potential sales to discuss (Riascos and Fidel Martinez could both depart) and transfers to pursue before the season kicks off in July.
The next few months will present a test for a tight-knit group poised for significant alterations. If the Xolos respond to those changes as well as they did this chase for Libertadores glory, then they will find a way to establish themselves once more and perhaps cinch their return to this competition next season.