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Corinthians, the cream of South America

The city of Sao Paulo awoke with a distinctly black-and-white hue on Thursday morning, though it was no trick of the light nor a trip back in time to the days before colour photography. After so many years yearning for the Copa Libertadores trophy, Brazilian giants Corinthians finally conquered the continent to win the Copa for the very first time.
Boasting one of the largest fanbases in the world, with an estimated 25 million followers in Brazil alone, the Corinthians faithful swarmed to the streets of the city wearing replica shirts, setting off fireworks and waving flags in scenes of celebration that look set to continue well into the weekend. Indeed, such fervent festivities fully justify the size of the achievement, as O Timão seized the trophy in the final against no lesser side than Argentinian superpowers Boca Juniors.
All of which certainly helped erase the memory of the club’s disappointing preliminary round exit against Tolima in the 2011 edition, even with the likes of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos in that side, as well as glossing over some of their more frustrating campaigns in recent decades in a competition their biggest regional rivals had already claimed.
The champions
Finishing up unbeaten and with a tally of just four goals conceded, Corinthians were able to emerge unscathed after some of the most daunting away trips in all Latin America. Among their feats on their travels were a goalless draw at Vasco da Gama’s Sao Januario; a 1-0 win in Santos’ Vila Belmiro home and finally a 1-1 draw at Boca’s Bombonera.
These encounters took place in the quarters, semis and final of the tournament respectively, all against former Libertadores champions which were unable to get the better of an extremely cohesive Timão unit. This sense of togetherness was strengthened still further by their fanatical following, to the extent that Corinthians conceded just once at home, when Brazil starlet Neymar struck for Santos at the Pacaembu.
Coach Tite therefore managed to assemble a side whose worth appeared greater than the sum of their parts. Tough in the tackle, tight-marking, playing a high defensive line and pressing far up the pitch when not in possession, this Corinthians team were swift, direct and effective as soon as the ball was back in their hands.
Back in the Round of 16 it had been Emelec who were ousted by the eventual champions. This came at the start of the knockout stages of a competition that proved highly competitive and unpredictable, while at various points the likes of Universidad de Chile, Velez Sarsfield and Libertad had all made strong cases to be considered title contenders.
The surprises
For the first time since 2004, Ecuador had two of its clubs in the knockout rounds – thanks to the progression of Deportivo Quito and Emelec – though no Uruguayan outfit was able to advance from the group phase.
In individual terms, Corinthians attacker Romarinho will have an incredible story to tell, given his first touch in the entire tournament came when scoring against Boca in front of a packed Bombonera, stunning the Xeneize fans in the process, mere seconds after coming off the bench. Not even dyed-in-the-wool Corintianos could have expected such a dramatic impact in only his third appearance at the club.
The players
Though Corinthians clearly boast a great team ethic, in the latter stages striker Emerson emerged as a truly decisive individual performer. Scorer of his side’s goal in the vital away-leg win over Santos in the last four, he was also the man who played in Romarinho to level the scores in the first-leg final draw in Buenos Aires. Emerson’s crowning glory, however, came in the second leg, when his brace of goals clinched the trophy for O Timão.
In the Boca camp, veteran string-puller Juan Roman Riquelme may have lost his first ever Libertadores final, having won the title in 2000, 2001 and 2007, but his performances proved he still has the ability to lead, inspire and turn games in Los Xeneizes’  favour. Another experienced midfield organiser who caught the eye was Deco, in fine form for Fluminense in the group phase and a man whose absence was keenly felt when his club were ousted by Riquelme and Co in the last eight.
Significantly on the younger side was Neymar, of 2011 champions Santos, who ended up the competition’s joint eight-goal top scorer alongside Matias Alustiza. Another sharpshooter that made headlines was Atletico Nacional’s Dorlan Pabon, who found the net on an impressive seven occasions.
Did you know?
Corinthians are the first team since 1978 to win the competition without losing a game, with Boca themselves the last club to achieve that feat. A further three clubs have also won the competition while remaining unbeaten: Santos in 1963, Independiente in 1964 and Estudiantes in both 1969 and 1970.
The stat
3 –
Brazilian clubs have now won the last three editions of the Libertadores, a run which was last achieved between 1997 and 1999 – when Cruzeiro, Vasco and Palmeiras respectively took continental honours. The only country to set a similar mark previously was Argentina, whose representatives claimed four titles between 1967 and 1970 (three for Estudiantes and one for Racing) and a four-Copa streak for Independiente between 1972 and 1975.
What they said
“We’ve won the title without losing a game, except the other teams that did it only played seven or eight matches. So how does becoming champions without losing in 14 games compare? I can’t quite grasp how much it means, but it’s going to be a long time before another team does the same. This business of saying the champions are ‘lucky’ is just a sure-fire way of undermining people’s work,” Corinthians coach Tite.


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