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Page last updated at 09:34 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 10:34 UK

Tim Vickery column

Tim Vickery
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

There are no big surprises in the last four of Europe's Champions League.

Cucuta midfielder Matias Urbano celebrates a goal against  Mexico's Chivas
Cucuta's Matias Urbano celebrates a goal against Chivas

For their size, tradition, recent track record and financial resources, all of the semi-finalists will feel that they are in their rightful place.

If you're looking for upsets, perhaps South America's Copa Libertadores is a better bet.

Even the richest clubs are in a constant state of flux, consistently forced to sell their best players, so there is more of a chance for a less traditional team to sneak under the radar and challenge for the title.

Last year's shock side were Cucuta of Colombia, who in their debut campaign fell only just short of the final.

This year the shock side is again Cucuta.

There is one round to go in the group stage, and only five teams have already booked their place in the knockout stages.

Cucuta are one of them. Once again, they have exceeded all expectations.

This may appear as a contradiction. How can a side which were such brilliant semi-finalists a year ago have sprung a surprise merely by strolling to the last 16 this time?

The answer is this: the lack of continuity suffered by the big teams may open the door to the little guys, but these in turn then suffer from exactly the same forces, only at an even greater intensity.

Success has placed their players in the shop window, they are soon snapped up and the club can find itself right back where it started from.

Sao Caetano were the remarkable Brazilian side who came from nowhere to reach the final of the 2002 Libertadores, which they only lost on penalties.

They are now back in their country's second division.

Earlier this decade, Cucuta were a second division outfit in Colombia playing in front of a couple of hundred spectators.

They won promotion under Jorge Luis Pinto and went on to claim the Colombian title, and when Pinto left to take over the national team, Jorge Luis Bernal came in with the attacking philosophy that made them so attractive to watch last year.

But then the team's assets were stripped.

Captain and goalkeeper Robinson Zapata went to Romania, dangerous Panamanian centre forward Blas Perez moved to Spain, Colombia right-back Ruben Bustos went to Brazil.

Almost everyone else was snapped up by Colombian clubs with more clout, and when the selling went on this year, coach Bernal resigned in protest, with the Libertadores about to get under way.

In at the last minute came Pedro Sarmiento - a new man with a new tactical approach.

Sarmiento was a defensive midfielder in his playing days, and it shows.

Cucuta's first two group games were both at home, both finished goalless - and as one Colombian pundit observed, the team were attacking while thinking about defending.

In other words, they were so concerned with not leaving themselves open to the opposition's counter-attack that their own forward play lacked conviction.

Four home points had been dropped - usually an expensive slip in the Libertadores.

With more time on the training field, Sarmiento's cautious tactics started to sink in.

Macnelly Torres (front) is Cucuta's main attacking threat
Macnelly Torres (front) is Cucuta's main attacking threat

And in Macnelly Torres, the sole surviving star from last year, Sarmiento has a wonderful player around whom to construct his attacking play - though only until the middle of this year, when Torres moves to Chile.

Torres is an attacking midfielder who is superb at playing the killer pass behind the opposing defence.

He is the supply line, making the bullets for Argentine striker Mathias Urbano to fire, and as their partnership clicked, Cucuta beat highly fancied Chivas Guadalajara of Mexico home and away - still without conceding a goal - before last week's 4-2 win away to San Jose of Bolivia confirmed their slot in the last 16.

Can they keep their momentum going through the knockout rounds?

Their cautious, compact, counter-attacking game will remind many of Once Caldas, the Colombian side who went all the way to the title four years ago.

Cucuta may not prove able to emulate them, but they have already sprung a surprise by qualifying for the knockout rounds in such comfort.

You can put your questions to Tim Vickery every week on the World Football Phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live's Up All Night programme from 0230 to 0400 BST every Saturday. You can also download last week's World Football Phone-in Podcast.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at vickerycolumn@hotmail.com

A bright future was predicted for the young Colombian Sherman Cardenas but the hype seems to have died down somewhat recently. Is he still at Bucaramangra? And how is he playing?
Louis Degenhardt

Colombia has a regulation which obliges clubs to select an Under-19 player for league matches, and Cardenas is one of the players who has taken most advantage of this - but although he shows some promise he has yet to do anything to justify the enormous hype that was built up around him.

This year he has one goal in 13 games - if memory serves me right, that's one more than he scored last season.

A key moment I think will be the South American Under-20 Championships at the start of next year. He went to the last one and was looking very lightweight. Next year he will be expected to produce.

I keep on hearing the young Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay being linked to a move to Manchester United, Barcelona and Juventus. I have not seen much of him in action, but he sounds as though he is highly regarded. Is he set for a bright future in the game? What style of defender is he?
Lee Jefferies

I think he's an excellent young centre-back and picked him in in World Soccer magazine as one of the stars of the 2005 South American Under-20s.

He's very tall, spreads confidence throughout the defence, has a belting right boot that contributes goals from free-kicks and penalties, and has adapted extremely well to European football with Racing Santander.

He has clearly outgrown that club, and I think would be a good investment for a bigger club in any of the major European leagues.

Having been in Ghana and Togo for the 2006 World Cup and South Africa for the recent Africa Cup of Nations, one thing that strikes me is there's a lot of talk about 'representing Africa', how Ghana led the African challenge, how Togo embarrassed Africa and how Bafana Bafana could potentially humiliate the continent by not producing a team that can get past the group stages of a World Cup. Can the same be said about South America? Would Bolivians support Brazil in the World Cup because they were South American? Do people in South America feel South American? In Europe, I certainly can't imagine the English supporting Germany because they were European...
Marc Fletcher

There is some South American solidarity, but I don't think it's nearly as strong as pan-African sentiment. During the last World Cup I was broadcasting on BBC's Africa Service during the Brazil-Ghana game, and it was clear that there were messages coming in from all over the continent in support of the Black Stars.

In South America during World Cups, there are many who will cheer for Brazil or Argentina, but there are limits. For the 2002 World Cup final there was a survey showing that more Argentines were supporting Brazil than Germany. If it had been Argentina against Germany I'm not convinced the Brazilian public would feel the same way.


see also
Sunday's gossip column
06 Apr 08 |  Gossip


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