How’s it going guys? Welcome to a new Monday Recap. I hope you’re all right, enjoying the return of football thoughout so many places in Europe. Here things are still very hard, with a big spike in cases lately, mainly in some the most vulnerable neighborhoods in the city of Buenos Aires and the Metropolitan Area. Still we march on, as does our FM adventure though South America, reaching the final stages of the 2022 season, let’s see how it went!
It’s something daring, the continental competition
It was only a week after our Torneo Intermedio success that the Closing Stage kicked off. We started it the right way, with a great win 3-0 over potential rivals Liverpool de Montivideo and just kept on winning. On the international front, a 2-0 victory at the Gran Parque Central vs. quarterfinal rivals Deportes Tolima meant we left the door open for a comeback in Colombia, and indeed it looked like we were heading to extra time until a headed goal from youngster newcomer Alejando Andrada in the 74th minute pushed us through to the semifinals.
Our three possible rivals were argentinian side Argentinos Juniors and brazilians Atlético Mineiro and Atlético Paranaense. My hope was that we would get the side from La Paternal and have the brazilians cancel each other out, in the hopes that the new one-leg final format would give us the edge. For once, Lady Fortuna smiled upon us and I got my wish: we would face Argentinos to try to win our ticket to the Copa Sudamericana final.
By late September we had lit the league on fire, only dropping 2 points at a visit to Montevideo Wanderers where we hit the woodwork not once, not twice, but thrice. With 16 points out of 18 possible, we were top of the league, 2 points ahead of 2nd Placed River de Montevideo and some 4 points away from a Peñarol side that had struggled to kick into gear from the get go. Considering the struggles of the Opening Stage, there was reason to be optimistic.
The first leg of the semifinal was played at the Diego Armando Maradona, Argentinos Juniors’ ground. I have to admit we were soundly beaten, with the local side controlling match at every moment. That being said, a quick counter by pace-demon Joao Victor gave us a glimmer of hope; with the final result being a 2-1 win for the Bichitos Colorados, we went back to the Gran Parque Central confident that with a much better showing at home, a single goal would be enough to claim our place in the final.
Whilst inflatable access tunnels have been a staple of argentinian football for a long time, lately clubs have taken to personalize them with symbology and homages to club icons. Argentinos Juniors’ surely stands amongst the best of them all.
I’ve got to admit that was rather thrilled with the possibility of featuring in our first ever continental final. The Copa Sudamericana was one of the reasons I pushed onwards after that disastrous first half of the season, and I was a bit afraid we might not get another chance to win it, particuarly if the side experienced another jump in form with a full preseason and a few quality signings for the 2023 season.
However, much to my dissapointment, we failed to produce that magical performance at home. Argentinos put out a much better defensive display that we had, and we squandered every chance we did get, incluiding a shot that hit the woodwork in the first half and a 53rd minute penalty missed by perpetual underachiever Agustín González.
It was a hard pill to swallow, but to use the typical mantra of dissapointed-but-not-showing-it managers, at least it gave us the chance to focus on the local competitions.
Nacional’s on fire, your defences are terrified
After the Sudamericana heartbreak, October proved a great month for us. Apart from some dissapointing performances in close wins that you have proven easier, we again got 16 points out of 18 available leading to arguably the most important match of the season, Peñarol at home.
At this point we were separated by 4 points. That meant that a win for the aurinegros would put them 1 behind us with one match left to play, and that could have terrible ramifications. While our inmediate destiny would be in our hands, only needing a win to take the Closing Stage tournament, a 1 point margin would not be enough to overcome Peñarol’s lead in the Overall Table*.
Because of the way the Campeonato Uruguayo is set up, that could make our break our shot at winning the whole thing. The way it goes, the winners of the Opening and Closing stages face each other in a playoff, the winner of which goes against the winner of the Overall Table in a two legged affair.
Since it’s very hard in a league with two dominant teams that the winner of Overall Table hasn’t won at least one of the two Stages** (unless they both had a terrible run of form on either part of the year or some very funny business happened in the Torneo Intermedio), most times the winner of the OT gets two shots at winning the whole thing, first by eliminating his only competiton in the play off (hence setting up a final against themselves which should totally be played to expose the ridiculousness of this format) or doing it better late than never in the official, this-time-for-real, no-tricks-I-promise two legged final***.
I have a crazy idea, Uruguay… how about NOT setting your tournament in way that makes it incredibly hard for anyone other that Nacional or Peñarol to win it AND not having to play the same team up to 4 times to do it? Doesn’t it sound wonderful?
The team had to step up to the challenge and luckily they did. A 4-0 beating of Peñarol (the first one for Nacional in over 50 years) all but sealed our leadership of the Overall Table and sent us to the PlayOffs for a first shot at taking the title for Nacional after 5 years.
The seven minutes of Filipe Luis
Don’t worry, this isn’t a review of some brazilian suspense novel, though it might as well could be. Back in August when my shining new left-wingback found himself injured for 2 months, I knew I had an issue to solve. My backup was a retrained winger youngster and I figured he was gonna be up to the task from a skills standpoint, but some reinforment could be needed, as he wasn’t gonna be able to take on several two-match weeks in a row without a suitable rotation player.
Since the board was angry with me over my lack of high profile signings (as they hired me because of my tendency to do so, even though hiring big players is easier when your club lies in the depths of the brazilian 3rd division), and taking advantage of a rule in the Campeonato Uruguayo by which players signed on a free can be registered at any time, I pulled the old trick of looking amonst nearly retired former internationals and signed former Atlético Madrid and Chelsea leftback Filipe Luis. It took ages to get him going, but by the time our shot at the championship came around he was a solid performer and a valuable member of the squad.
Considering that both Nacional and Peñarol have their own fantastic stadiums and that all but 4 teams in the uruguayan top flight are from Montevideo, they could give the old Estadio Centenario a break, but it does provide a magical venue for the Superclásicos.
Our first meeting with destiny was on November 1st. The playoff is a single leg so it was the shortest, safest route to the title; no away goals, no suspense, just win and take the title home. After our battering of Peñarol barely two weeks prior, I can’t say I wasn’t confident. Sure, another 4-0 was hardly on the cards, but a 1-0? 2-0? Come on, we had this IN THE BAG!
A 7th minute header from Joao Victor gave us the lead but I was about to begin choosing the colour of my tie for the ceremony when David Terans equalized and sent the match onto an absolute frenzy. Both teams had solid chances but no one could put themselves ahead after 120 never-wracking minutes so we went into the dreaded Penalty Shootout.
Nacional won the 2019 Supercopa Uruguaya on penalties, so I was hoping some of that shootout charm transfered to my boys.
A save from our star goalie Sergio Rochet gave us the edge and as kickers came and went that advantage held, up the the point where, 4-4, our 5th kicker took the ball to the spot; none other than Agustín González. Surely this was the moment for the team leader and captain to show his true mettle, to make amends for that massive miss at the Copa Sudamericana semis and take his beloved Nacional to the title, to clinch glory, to become immortal, surely this was the moment the became a H…
Nah, he kicked it so slow and so perfectly centered that a traffic cone could have saved it; 4-4, Peñarol kick. It only took a few more penalties before tired legs and increasingly bad takers gave one side or the other the win and the coin fell on Peñarol’s side. There went our chance to win it all without much of a fuss, on to the bloody final we go.
Just four days later, on November 5th, we headed for the 1st leg and whatever shred of confidence I had left was evaporated. Peñarol were running us off the pitch with a great performance and things looked bleak until be entered the 38th minute. On a rare attack for Nacional, my rightback gained some space beating his man with speed and put a cross that missed just about every player in a position of danger, only fall comfortably for a wandering Filipe Luis on the left flank, who put it in back of the net with a first touch kick from his left foot alla-Van Persie. I instantly paused the match and checked the rules; away goals counted.
Filipe Luis, as fine a left foot as you’ll ever find… apparently. The brazilian ended up with 11 appearences with a Nacional shirt, a fine ending to his career.
Not 4 minutes later, a rejuvenated Nacional attack started gathering some momentum and when Joao Victor got into space and was promptly taken down by the Peñarol defender we got our chance. No card, but the opportunity to make it 2-2 had to be taken and who else but Agustín Gonzál… I’m kidding, that fellow isn’t taking another penalty as long as I am the manager. The player with the best technicals and worst physicals on the pitch was the guy to take the ball, Mr. Filipe Luis. It was a beautiful left footed crossed kick to the bottom corner and it was Nacional 2, Peñarol 2.
I began planning my tactical moves, to ensure this was the final result when…what’s this? Another highlight? Surely not… My jaw dropped to the ground as who else but Filipe Luis had himself sent off with a 2 footed tackle just outside the centre circle. In 7 seven minutes my left back had gone from Filipe Luis, to Ronaldo Luis, to David Luis. Adjustments were made and we largely resisted the endless attempts on goal by Peñarol. If not for a silly mistake of a corner it would have been a draw, but 3-2 was the final score. With the 2nd leg coming in just three days, however, it was still a decent result as a single goal would be enough to claim our win.
November 8th and we were at the do or die moment. With the Estadio Centenario packed as I had been all series long. Now, I’d love to tell of the epic match that ensued but… it didn’t. Ever had one of those matches when you mostly stare at the clock hoping for a highlight to come, watching that number get slowly closer and closer to 90, yet nothing happens? By the end of it I might have had a Peñarol goal so it wouldn’t all be so pointless. It ended 0-0 and I was once again glad I had the match on 2D, else the carboneros celebration might have made me sick.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this heartbroken, in FM terms of course. The Sudamericana was one thing but losing a title we had 2 and a half shots at winning is mesmerizingly sad. I’m not sure I want to continue being manager of Nacional. I know by jumping ship I’m effectively losing a year’s work on whatever team I go to but I’m not sure I can play another match with this team. To get nowhere like we did in the Opening Stage is one thing, but having a team come so close yet so far from achieving a goal is… different.
I’ll give it a long and calmed consideration and come back next monday with the answer.
Until then, thanks for reading!
*Here’s where I admit I screwed up. The 55-55 table screenshot that I showed you last time was taken with 2 matches of the Closing Stage played, with 2 wins for me and a win and a draw for them, evening out the two points advantage (51-49) they held at the end of the Torneo Intermedio.
**Just in case you wonder, if a teams wins both the Opening and Closing stage as well as the OT, they win the whole shebang, no questions asked. No, AUF, we can’t one more Peñarol-Nacional just in case, just give the title to the winner…
***This has lead to some utterly ridiculous championship finishes like last year’s were Nacional and Peñarol could end up playing each other 4 times in 11 days to define the winner. Why? Well, they finished tied on 34 points at the Closing Stage, meaning a match was required to determine the winner of that. As Peñarol had won the Opening stage but not the Overall Table, if Nacional won, they’d go to the PlayOff to determine who was gonna face Nacional in the Final. And if Peñarol won that, then the final would be played. Think of that next time you’re doing maths to figure out how many goals anyone needs to overcome a UCL/UEL knockout series.