There was a touch of late drama in the Copa Libertadores semifinal on Wednesday when Internacional of Brazil, out of the blue, scored a goal in the 88th minute. Another goal would have taken them through to meet Argentina's River Plate in the final. In reality, though, the match was not even close. Tigres of Mexico may have only won 4-3 on aggregate, but there was a significant gulf between the two teams.
The warning signs were there last week in Brazil. Inter had been in continuous action in the Brazilian championship. Tigres were playing their first competitive game since the end of May, and with some new signings to bed into the side. After 10 minutes Inter were already two up. But after being caught cold, Tigres picked themselves off the floor to pull a goal back and dominate the next 40 minutes, a phase which ended when they had centre-back Hugo Ayala sent off. After that, U.A.N.L. were content to lose 2-1.
A week later in the north of Mexico, the warning lights were flashing for Inter right from the start. In the first minute, Tigres' French acquisition, centre-forward Andre-Pierre Gignac was causing problems from a corner. Before long, he whipped a dangerous cross in from the left, then pulled one back from the right. The Inter defence were having trouble with his mobility, and no one picked up the former Marseille man after 17 minutes when he levelled the aggregate scores -- and put Tigres ahead on away goals -- with a towering far post header.
The provider of the cross was another new signing, Jurgen Damm, whose domination of Inter left back Geferson would turn out to be the key element in the game. This time his acceleration gave him enough space to beat Geferson, a surprise inclusion in Brazil's Copa America squad, and curl in his superb cross.
The big question now was whether Inter could score. The Brazilians had made a subtle tactical switch since the first leg, keeping the same attacking personnel but moving from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. Lisandro Lopez dropped from the front line to wide left, Andres D'Alessandro moved into the middle and the quick Valdivia came across to the right, to have a go at Tigres left back Jorge Torres.
With Inter needing a goal, the versatile Chilean Charles Aranguiz was bursting forward from central midfield, trying to link up with the lone striker Nilmar, whose pace was expected to cause problems to Tigres Brazilian centre-back Juninho. But Nilmar could never get into the game -- when Inter did get the ball into the net, it came at the wrong end.
A long diagonal ball was hit towards Damm, and Geferson panicked. Not trusting his right foot to make the clearance, he tried with his left -- and, horribly off balance, only succeeded in sending the ball past his own keeper.
The second Tigres goal, five minutes before half time, did not change the match situation unduly. Inter still needed to score, though now a lone visiting goal would force a penalty shootout. But, as summer night gently fell in the northern hemisphere, it was Tigres who came out after the break eager to wrap things up quickly.
If Damm was a prolonged nightmare for Inter left back Geferson, the same was true on the other flank where Javier Aquino, another new acquisition, led William in a merry dance. The little winger won a penalty soon after the restart.
But Rafael Sobis, a former Inter idol, telegraphed his penalty, which was comfortably saved by Alisson diving to his left. It hardly mattered. Before long Tigres were three up. The third was a fine collective move, the ball switched from left to right, where once more Damm powered past Geferson and pulled back for Uruguayan midfielder Egidio Arevalo Rios to score with a diving header.
Some 35 minutes still remained, but it felt as if the game was all over.
Perhaps Tigres felt it a little bit too much. They were wasteful on the counter-attack, and received that sudden late jolt when substitute Eduardo Sasha pulled back for Lisandro Lopez to guide home an Inter goal. In the previous round against Santa Fe of Colombia, Internacional had clinched qualification right at the end. Could they do it again?
The answer was a resounding 'no.' And this time, frankly, it would not have been deserved. Tigres were the better side.
U.A.N.L. become the third Mexican side to reach the final, where they go on to face River Plate, who they already met in the group stage.
Tigres may well be the better side in the two legged final. But whatever the result, they will not go to the Club World Cup later this year. Since Mexico is not in South America, their teams cannot represent the continent. River Plate, then, can already make their travel plans. First, though, they need to think about the long trip north next week for the first leg of the final.
Internacional, meanwhile, will be making the same journey in the other direction, dwelling on the fact that for the second consecutive year there is no Brazilian participation in the final of the Copa Libertadores.