It may have finished goalless, but the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final was about as far from two teams canceling each other out as it's possible to get. Penarol had conceded an average of just one goal per game in the knockout stage, packing men behind the ball and making a virtue of its defensive qualities, but while it kept a clean sheet, it was more to do with poor finishing and desperate defending from both sides than any great design. This was messy, enthralling, at times disjointed, and while a draw was probably a fair result, both sides will reflect on opportunities missed.
Both sides began with what would probably be termed a 4-2-2-2 formation. Such designations are almost always crude approximations, but the 4-2-2-2 in particular is a flexible shape that hardly ever features what the numbers suggest -- namely a column of four pairs down the centre of the pitch with wingbacks charging up and down the flanks.
Penarol's shape often seemed more like a 4-3-1-2, with Mathias Corujo shuttling on the right and Matias Mier drifting in from his starting berth on the left of the two attacking midfielders to create behind the two forwards -- Alejandro Martinuccio, who pulled wide at every opportunity, often making a 4-2-3-1, and the targetman Juan Manuel Olivera. Santos, meanwhile, as so often seems to happen with Brazilian 4-2-2-2s, often seemed more like a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3. Adriano and Arouca held in the middle, with Elano drifting just in front of them, while Danilo operated on the left, Neymar on the right (although the two switched fairly frequently) and Ze Eduardo as the orthodox centre-forward.
Neymar, by far the most hyped player on the pitch and certain to leave -- Real Madrid appears favourite but Chelsea and Manchester City are also in the hunt -- was hugely disappointing. He began on the right, but was marshaled with a brusqueness he clearly didn't relish by the 36-year-old Dario Rodriguez, his booking for a dive after 19 minutes a sign of his frustration. He had far more joy when he drifted infield or operated on the left.
An early wander followed by an angled pass that laid in Ze Eduardo showed exactly why he is so highly rated, but his main impact was as a decoy. Corujo, nominally the right-sided of Penarol's two attacking midfielders, tended to drop back, doubling up on him with Gonzalez. When he did so, though, it freed up Alex Sandro, hurtling forward from left-back. Twice before half-time chances were created for him by Neymar surges -- his angled 21st-minute drive beaten away by the goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa, who also got down well to smother his slightly scuffed shot five minutes later. If anything he was even quieter in the second half, although a player of his ability will always pose a threat. Only once did he get the better of Dario Rodriguez, but when he cut the ball back for Danilo, Carlos Valdez made a fine block.
That battle on the Santos left was key; while Neymar was more effective when drifting to that side, it also left the Brazilians vulnerable when Corujo pushed on, at time isolating Alex Sandro. Mier almost laid in Corujo after 23 minutes, and two minutes later, Martinuccio winning a tangle in the middle did set him through. Alex Sandro, though, recovered to make a superb tackle as Corujo appealed for a penalty.
It wasn't just Alex Sandro's surges that left Santos looking a little vulnerable, though. Their offside line was shambolic, and three times in the final seven minutes of the first half, Penarol created chances simply by returning half-cleared set-plays to the box. Santos was fortunate all three of those chances fell to defenders -- twice Dario Rodriguez prodded tentative lobs over the bar, while Guillermo Rodriguez headed his effort straight at Rafael. The problem continued into the second half -- although it was eased by the fact that the quality of delivery of set-play went down after Mier had gone off; 20 minutes in a long throw was headed out, headed back in, and suddenly Martinuccio had a chance, Adriano getting back to block.
Santos' best chance of the first half also fell to a defender. Bruno Rodrigo was brought in largely to counter the aerial threat of Olivera, but when he was left unmarked from a 22nd-minute corner, his headed against the top of the crossbar.
Since conceding five at Liga de Quito in the group stage of the competition, Penarol has played a cautious, counterattacking style, with Andres Freitas and Luis Aguiar sitting in front of the back four providing an extra layer of cover. The pair was superbly disciplined again here, but they allowed Elano space in the danger area central about 30 yards out four minutes after half-time. His shot wasn't cleanly struck, but it hit Danilo and fell for Ze Eduardo, who was denied by a quite brilliant save from Sosa.
Fabian Estoyanoff has been highly effective as an impact substitute in the tournament, but the main effect of his arrival 11 minutes into the second half was to force Alex Sandro deeper, presumably fearing his pace. His introduction also broke up the Corujo-Martinuccio combination, and it was little surprise when Corujo was replaced by the more naturally left-sided Antonio Pacheco midway through the half. The veteran's arrival immediately restored shape to a game that had become a little scrappy.
With Penarol becoming a little more adventurous, more space was afforded Santos in wide areas, particularly on the left, where Estoyanoff offered nothing like the cover Corujo had. Ze Eduardo headed a Danilo cross just wide then Neymar, cutting in from that same left side, dragged a finish at Sosa.
Penarol offered increased creativity themselves. Pacheco laid in Aguiar who, having beaten his defender, had the ball nipped off his toe by Olivera just as he seemed poised to shoot. The centre-forward, who had a poor night, dragged his shot wide. His replacement, Diego Alonso, did have the ball in the net four minutes from time, but his effort was -- rightly -- ruled out for a marginal offside.
Santos probably goes back to Brazil thinking the hardest part of the job is done -- and a draw in the Centenario is a creditable result. The example of Internacional, though, should be a warning. It too drew 1-1 in Montevideo in the first leg, but back in Brazil lost 2-1 to Penarol. The Uruuguayans are not a great team, in terms of raw skill are not a patch on Santos, but they do have a togetherness and a spirit, and playing on the counter suits them. After the first leg, it's advantage Santos, but the final is far from over.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor ofThe Blizzard.