With four Argentinian clubs already through to the Copa Libertadores last 16, all eyes were on Independiente and Estudiantes on Thursday evening to see if all six representatives could progress to the knockout stages. Unlike River Plate and Racing Club both had work to do in their final group games but victories over Deportivo Lara and Nacional respectively confirmed it was a clean sweep for Argentina.
Independiente have been playing catch up since their surprise defeat to Deportivo Lara on the opening day and with the Venezuelans now in Avellaneda, El Rojo needed a victory to confirm their spot in the next round.
With World Cup bound Maxi Meza back in the starting eleven alongside Martín Benítez in support of centre-forward Emmanuel Gigliotti, Independiente were on the front foot from kick off but were unable to find a way past goalkeeper Carlos Salazar.
On the occasion that Salazar was rooted to the spot, Benítez’s free-kick came back off the crossbar as concerns grew that it could be another one of those days for Independiente.
However, moments before half time, Benítez delivered an inswinging corner and it crept inside Salazar’s near post.
From that point the result rarely looked in doubt, which was just as well with Millonarios defeating Corinthians, but that didn’t mean the nerves didn’t disappear. Gigliotti headed in a second, only to become a fourth wrongly disallowed goal for Independiente in the group stage.
And it wasn’t until Meza and Benítez combined to set up Gigliotti ten minutes from time that the Estadio Libertadores de América could relax.
With the objective complete, Independiente can now start preparing for what looks like a difficult last 16 tie against any one of the group winners. Keeping Meza and Benítez for six months more will be vital and even with this, Ariel Holan will want reinforcements.
A little earlier in La Plata and Estudiantes claimed a dramatic victory over Nacional to nick second spot in Group F on goal difference thanks to an 89th minute penalty.
El Pincha needed to beat Nacional by two goals to progress so when Paulo Zunino headed the visitors in front after only three minutes, the outlook for a side that had scored only three goals in the five matches prior wasn’t good.
A lifeline appeared on the hour mark when a handball in the penalty area allowed Juan Otero to equalise from the penalty spot and suddenly there was an energy about Estudiantes that had been lacking throughout the campaign.
Lucas Melano fired past Esteban Conde to make it 2-1 and just as it looked as though Nacional would hold on, Diego Arismendi clumsily tripped Mariano Pavone and Otero stepped up to bury his second spot kick of the night.
The Uruguayans fumed but they had gifted Estudiantes the victory needed and El Pincha will be in the draw for the next round.
— CONMEBOL.com (@CONMEBOL) May 25, 2018