Ronaldinho key to Atletico hopes


Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - Page 18

Ronaldinho will need to produce a performance in keeping with his vintage best if his Atletico Mineiro team is to overturn a first-leg deficit and win the Copa Libertadores today.

The former two-time World Player of the Year has to help the Brazilian club — seeking their first international title — erase the 2-0 deficit established by Club Olimpia in Paraguay last week.

“We still believe,” Ronaldinho wrote on Twitter. “It’s not over yet. We have one game to go and we will give our blood to win this title. We believe in the strength of this group and in the strength of the fans.”

The Copa Libertadores is one of the few titles Ronaldinho has not won in his career. After a decade in Europe with Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and AC Milan, he returned to Brazilian glamor club Flamengo in 2011, before an abrupt departure to Atletico Mineiro last year.

“This title means more than anything else for us,” 33-year-old Ronaldinho said.

His move to the Belo Horizonte club quickly vaulted it to being a top contender in Brazil and Latin America, and his teammates are hoping the former Brazil star will lead them to the coveted title today.

“The team improved significantly after Ronaldinho arrived and we all have a lot of trust in him in a decisive moment like this,” striker Jo said.

Forward Diego Tardelli added: “We know he is the star of our team and everybody respects him a lot for that.”

It was a difficult first-leg loss for Ronaldinho and Atletico, with Olimpia’s second goal coming from a free-kick in the final move of the match. Ronaldinho was far from his best, being ineffective through most of the game and being replaced in the second half, but there is reason for the Brazilian club to remain optimistic despite the loss.

Atletico Mineiro were in the same situation in the semi-finals after losing 2-0 to Newell’s Old Boys in the first leg in Argentina. Ronaldinho was great in the return game at home, though, and Atletico Mineiro won the match by the same score and eventually came out on top in a penalty shootout, with goalkeeper Victor saving the final penalty.

Victor also saved a stoppage-time penalty against Tijuana of Mexico in the quarter-finals.

Olimpia have already relinquished a two-goal first-leg lead in the final of the Copa Libertadores. It happened in 1989 when they fell to Atletico Nacional of Colombia on penalties, marking the last time such advantage was lost.

Olimpia won the tournament the following year, adding to the trophy they won for the first time in 1979.

The Paraguayans made it to this year’s final by holding on to that same two-goal advantage against Colombia’s Santa Fe. They won 2-0 at home and advanced despite a 1-0 loss in the away leg.

Olimpia are hoping to repeat the success of the last time they played a final against a Brazilian club, in 2002. They lost 1-0 to Sao Caetano in the first leg at home, but won the return in Brazil 2-1 and clinched the title on penalties.

It is the ninth straight year that at least one Brazilian team has made the Copa Libertadores final. Brazilian clubs have won the past three titles — Corinthians last year, Santos in 2011 and Internacional in 2010.

The newly renovated Mineirao Stadium, which holds about 60,000 fans, is expected to be packed for today’s match.

Atletico wanted to play the final at their Independencia Stadium, where they have not lost in nearly 40 matches, but the South American soccer federation deemed the venue too small for the final of the continental tournament. It holds just over 20,000 fans.

Atletico Mineiro are traditionally one of the power clubs in Brazil, but they have not had a lot of success internationally.

For today’s match, coach Alexi Stival “Cuca” will have young Brazil striker Bernard available after he was suspended for the first leg.