Welcome back to On the Break! If you missed the post covering the first half of this season, click HERE to catch up! Spoiler alert, it’s grim reading! We really need to find some form and quickly if we’re going to rescue this season, otherwise the save could be over far sooner than anticipated!
With such a disappointing Apertura stage putting us on the back foot, a strong Intermedio showing would be crucial. Nacional and Peñarol were thankfully kept separate again, with us facing the former, but we also had to contend with a new threat. Cerrito, still on a high from the back end of last season (ironically spurred by signing Dufour and Colman on loan from us) have started this season excellently and will feel they can qualify for the Final, as should we.
I’m really running out of ideas. I’m frustrated, the players are frustrated, and nothing is working. We’ve all been here (it can’t just be me? Please say it isn’t just me!), and it’s awful. If we don’t start winning some league games soon, we’ve had it. I’m ready to declare that we aren’t going to meet the board expectation of finishing in the top three – we’re a huge 16 points off Cerrito who occupy third place. It’ll take a miracle!
The overall table after the Intermedio doesn’t make for pretty reading 😶
I noticed a new pattern forming in our attacking play over the duration of the Intermedio and some games in and around those fixtures (more on that later), so to try and take advantage I tweaked the system ahead of the Clausura and also set up a couple of friendlies designed to boost morale.
Mission accomplished I’d say!
We played a bit more direct, trying to utilise the wingers a bit more, and also pushed higher up the pitch, trying to restrict the space for opposition to play in, but also meaning we could get forward quicker when we regained possession. While Pablo López has been leading the line for us for the past three seasons, we haven’t been able to rely on him as an aerial threat. His heading ability is excellent, but at 5’7″ with a jumping reach of 6 and strength of 5, he can’t get to enough balls to warrant high crosses. Now with Ramiro Centurión and Yerson Solís competing for the lone striker role, plus 6’4″ right winger Víctor Valenzuela bringing a threat from out wide, I want the side to hang crosses up in the air again for the bigger lads to get onto. They aren’t the best headers of the ball around, but we’re playing the percentages, they win so many duels they’re bound to get some joy.
The Torque result aside, we got off to an excellent start. Apart from the thriller against River Plate Montevideo we were a lot stronger defensively which is a huge plus; the higher line clearly suits the side more. I consider us to be favourites against every side in the league apart from the big two, and we needed to start acting like it. Coinciding with our upturn in form was an apparent capitulation over at Cerrito, allowing us to reduce the gap to them considerably.
Cerrito only gained 8 points in this run of games, compared to our 22.
We had managed to get within 2 points of Cerrito, but Wanderers had continued to be strong and were now clear of both of us in third. Catching Cerrito wasn’t enough anymore, our form needed to stay this strong all the way to the end of the season.
Ah frustration, my old friend.
All of those feelings of helplessness and lack of ideas came flooding back, and I’m just glad the season is over. Last year we missed out on the title by the narrowest margin possible, which may be a big psychological block for many of these players now. Only four players recorded an average rating over 7 this season; one only played 8 times, and two weren’t at the club last year. Only Mauro García played a key role in both seasons and performed well this year, which I think is telling.
A fifth place finish is really underwhelming, and the first time we’ve failed to finish high enough to get into the Libertadores. It really feels like one step forward and two huge leaps back compared to the progress we made last season, and I think we’re really starting to see now that the struggle to identify transfer targets is affecting us. We still haven’t paid a transfer fee or even signed a player on loan in the save so far, we’ve been entirely reliant on free transfers, so if that’s going to continue to be the case we need to cast our net wider, perhaps spending on a higher scouting package but for a shorter duration. It’s something I need to consider over the break, otherwise we risk being left behind.
After narrowly missing out on progressing from our Copa Libertadores group, we dropped into the Copa Sudamericana Second Round, where we faced Argentinian side Lanús. I covered my approach to this tie in isolation in the last post (which you can read HERE) so I won’t go too in depth again here.. but let’s just say it went well.
Víctor Valenzuela absolutely ruined them, they just couldn’t deal with the amount of headers he could win. We were the underdogs for the tie, the board still only expected us to ‘Be Competitive’, but we absolutely crushed the Argentinians. How far could we go?
Next up were Peruvian side FBC Melgar, a team that we’re much more evenly matched with. If we could beat Lanús so comprehensively, surely we stood a good chance in this one too?
Consecutive first leg 6-1 wins? Have we suddenly become a team that only shows up in the cups? Valenzuela was incredible again, and 6 away goals made progressing almost a certainty. We won the second leg 1-0 courtesy of Pablo López on an ever increasingly rare start, and steamed on to the Semi Finals!
The Semi Final draw was at tough as it could possibly be, Argentinian giants River Plate. They shockingly failed to qualify from their Libertadores group, finishing behind Athletico Paranaense of Brazil and Independiente del Valle of Ecuador. They then despatched fellow Argentinians Colón and Bolivian side Bolívar before we faced off.
Conceding three away goals was a crushing blow, but we can be very proud of how we performed against one of the best sides in the continent. They played with a box midfield (2 CDM, 2 CM), so we tried to place even more emphasis on playing in wide areas where they had just their full-backs to cover the flanks against our full-backs and wingers, plus the X factor that is Valenzuela. We went ahead right on the brink of half-time against the run of play, but also lost Valenzuela to an injury which was a major dent in how we wanted to approach the second half. Rafael Santos Borré, who is worth more than our entire club and earns more than our wage budget, scored twice, added to by his newgen strike partner Gustavo Hernández. We were almost certainly going to be eliminated, but we were determined to go to Argentina and show them what we had.
I think we showed them exactly what we’re capable of. We were so close to winning what was in truth a very even game, but Gustavo Hernández popped up again to deny us a famous victory. Despite that I’m chuffed with the lads, we were brave, played on the front foot and kept the ball well, and on another day we would have won. It’s been an incredible run and I’m very proud of it, despite the negative effects it’s had on our league campaign. River Plate went on to win the tournament, beating Vasco da Gama in the final, so being able to say we lost to eventual winners softens the blow a touch too!
I want to give one final shout-out to Víctor Valenzuela, because without him I genuinely don’t know how our season would have ended. He joined in July, and because of his foreign player status I was unsure whether he would play a role or go out on loan. When he joined a few of the wingers had knocks, so he played the first game he was available for and scored. From there, he was almost undroppable. 14 goals and 4 assists in 24 games from the right-wing, including an astonishing 9 in 6 in the Sudamericana. He’s since been capped twice by Mexico and his value has rocketed from £180k when he joined to £1.4m now, but he has time remaining on his deal and no interest (for now), so it’ll take at least £5million before I even consider a bid for him, because they will come eventually.
That’s it for this post, we need to dust ourselves off and go again, because if we don’t get back to where we belong next season the finances will crumble again. Let me know if you have any thoughts in the comments, or over on Twitter.
Thanks for reading.