El Rey de Copas (The King of Cups), Independiente haven’t had much to cheer in reason years but following relegation and years of mediocrity, El Rojo are back in a major final. Ariel Holan’s exciting side managed to overturn their first leg defeat to Libertad with a thrilling 3-1 victory in Avellaneda to reach the Copa Sudamericana final.
Since winning the same competition in 2010, Independiente, the club with the record number of Copa Libertadores victories, have gone through probably the worst spell in their illustrious history but despite suffering a 1-0 defeat in Asunción last week, there was a firm belief that El Rojo could reach the final.
Roared on by an electric Estadio Libertadores de América, Independiente started at a terrific pace but one which led to imprecision and plenty of misplaced passes.
With the likes of Ezequiel Barco, Maxi Meza, Martín Benitez, Juan Sánchez Miño and Fabricio Bustos all bursting forward to support centre forward Emmanuel Gigliotti, there were no shortage of attacking options for Independiente.
After 16 minutes this early pressure produced a breakthrough when a quickly taken throw-in released Bustos and his typically energetic charge into the box resulted in a careless trip by Antonín Alcarez. Fabricio Bustos, who missed a penalty at the end of last season against Lanús to deny Independiente a Libertadores spot, stepped up and vanquished that demon, sending Rodrigo Muñoz the wrong way.
Two minutes later and Independiente led in the tie. A swift break saw Maxi Meza skip away down the right and his low cross was slid in by Gigliotti.
The joy was short-lived however as Libertad pulled a goal back through Angel Cardozo, heading in from close range after a free kick was pumped into the penalty area. The away goal then swung the tie back in favour of the Paraguayans.
While the Independiente of old may have buckled in the circumstances, Holan’s side seem to be made of sturdier stuff and before the break, they were ahead once more. Gigliotti again providing the finishing touch, only this time it was central defender Gaston Silva drilling the ball across goal.
Trailing now in the tie, Libertad were much improved after the break as Independiente gradually dropped deeper and deeper. Holan bolstered his midfield and defence with the introductions of Nicolás Domingo and Fernando Amorebieta, as El Rojo threw everything in front of the ball to protect their lead.
A Santiago Salcedo free kick whistled inches wide of Martín Campaña’s post in the dying seconds but Independiente held on for a famous victory.
After the heartbreak of recent years the relief among the players, staff and supporters was clear and the celebrations erupted. Flamengo or Junior stand in El Rojo’s way in the final and while there is a sense that Ariel Holan has already brought Independiente back to somewhere near the top of Argentinian football, that will only really be achieved by lifting the trophy.