There are two outsiders in the quarterfinals of South America’s Copa Libertadores. Chile’s Colo Colo are the only team left from outside Brazil and Argentina. And of the eight remaining teams, Atletico Tucuman are the only one which has never lifted the trophy.
And, barring a remarkable turnaround, the club from the north of Argentina will have to wait at least another year. The first club from the region to take part in the competition, they made their debut only last year and have exceeded expectations by getting so far. And they will exceed all expectations on a monumental scale if they are able to come back from a 2-0 defeat they suffered at home to the reigning champions, Gremio of Brazil.
Tuesday night’s match was one in which an important role was played by VAR — introduced at this point in the competition, as was also the case in 2017.
Tucuman were a goal down soon after the half-hour mark. But, backed by a packed crowd, they were well and truly in the game. Their front pairing of the burly Leandro Diaz and the skillful Luis Rodriguez was looking dangerous. Tucuman were switching play intelligently and had the best of the opening exchanges. Indeed, Gremio were unable to impose their usual passing style on proceedings. Their goal came from a long free-kick, nodded on by Cicero for Alisson to burst behind the defensive line and volley home.
Perhaps, on the biggest night of Tucuman’s history, some nerves were jangling. A few minutes later, on the verge of halftime, Gervesio Nunez brought an end to a Gremio counter-attack by barging Alisson to the ground. It was a yellow-card offence. The referee did not see what Nunez did after committing the foul, but the video referee spotted it. As Alisson fell, Nunez took the opportunity to stamp on his back. The Colombian referee and World Cup official Wilmar Roldan was alerted, went to have a look at the replay and came to the obvious conclusion: Nunez had to go. Tucuman were a goal down and a man down with just over 45 minutes still to play.
They did their best after the break, but, an ageing side against such highly qualified opponents, their task was all but impossible. Retaining the Diaz-Rodriguez partnership left them with just three men in midfield and meant that Gremio could always find space down the flanks. Ten minutes into the second half, right-back Leonardo planted an intelligent ball down the line, Alisson sent in a low cross and Everton, newly capped by Brazil, arrived at the far post to drill home the second.
Gremio wasted a number of counter-attacking chances to add to their advantage. But it would be a major upset if in a fortnight’s time Tucuman are able to give them a serious scare on their own turf in Porto Alegre.
Perhaps the main talking point from the match is the change that VAR is capable of making to the Libertadores. The tournament has traditionally played host to some of the game’s dark arts. It may even be the case that resorting to such practices has enabled outgunned sides to stay competitive. In a pre-VAR scenario, Nunez would have got away with his sneaky attempt to intimidate his opponent. But not on this occasion.
There is also the question of diving, which has become so prevalent in recent years, especially in the Brazilian game. There is the chance here for VAR to play a significant role — although in an area of decision making that contains a subjective component, it is still unclear whether VAR will clear up controversies or merely add to them.
As far as the opening first leg of the 2018 quarterfinals, though, Atletico Tucuman have cause to regret that their big night coincided with the introduction of the video referee.