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LDU Prove That Ecuador is South America’s Emerging Force

Both teams participating in Saturday’s final of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s Europa League equivalent, had epic journeys down to Maldonado in Uruguay. The long return journey will be made in contrasting moods. After winning the title on penalties, there will be unconfined joy in the camp of LDU, or Liga de Quito as they are known in their native Ecuador. They take home this trophy for the second time. Fortaleza of Brazil, meanwhile, will be cursing how close they came to rising to the occasion on by far the biggest day in the club’s history.

After a 1-1 draw, Liga’s veteran Peru international Paolo Guerrero was first up to take a penalty, and had his shot saved. Fortaleza held the lead and went into the final kick of the regulation 10 spot-kicks on match point. If Pedro Augusto scored, then the emerging club from Brazil’s northeast would have its first major title, and those five-day bus rides that some of the fans had been on would have seemed more than worthwhile.

But Alexander Domínguez, Liga’s gangling, vastly experienced Ecuador international goalkeeper made the save. Scores were level and more spot-kicks would be needed. Liga’s Ezequiel Piovi scored with one of the best shots in the sequence, and though Fortaleza defender Emanuel Britez hit hard and true, the mid height facilitated a wonderful flying save from Dominguez. Liga had done it.

There may have been some cruel justice in the way it all ended. With the game tied at 1-1, Britez was surely fortunate to stay on the field. The always bright and dangerous Jhojan Julio was running ominously towards goal when Britez took him out with a crude foul that maybe deserved more than a yellow card. But in truth there was almost nothing to separate the two sides as they fought it out while spring sunshine slowly turned to Uruguayan dusk.

An absorbing match took time to spark to life. The first half was edgy and nervy, ridden with errors and ill-tempered aerial duels. Matters improved after the break. Julio’s neat turn brought a smart save from Joao Ricardo, and then Fortaleza were ahead with a goal that sums up a side that have recently gone from second division also rans to continental finalists. They committed men forward to win the ball, managed to play in former MLS midfielder Tomas Pochettino to the byline and he squared for a fine centre-forward’s finish from Juan Martin Lucero.

But Liga were quickly level. They had suffered a first half blow Ecuador international Renato Ibarra limped off. On came Lisandro Alzugaray. Perhaps the Brazilian defenders were slow to adjust to the appearance of a left-footer playing on the right wing, but the substitute was given too much space to cut in and curl a superb shot inside the far corner.

Both scorers are from Argentina. Both coaches are from Argentina. Liga’s Luis Zubeldia was an Under-20 international midfielder until injury cut short his career and sped up his move into coaching. And Juan Pablo Vojvoda, in his low key, intense manner, is the star of the Fortaleza show, the dynamic force who has kept rebuilding the team during a highly impressive spell in charge.

The nationality of these players and coaches is important because, for all the contribution made by Argentines, this game goes some way to confirm the perhaps surprising position of Ecuador as the biggest challengers to the Brazilian domination of club football in South America.

True, Boca Juniors take part in next Saturday’s final of the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s main event, but most will see them as underdogs against Fluminense of Brazil — not least because Fluminense are playing at home, but also because Boca did not win a single one of their six knockout matches and hauled their way through via a sequence of penalty shootouts. And if Boca are unable to spring a surprise, it will mean that Argentina has been unable to win either the Libertadores or the Sudamericana for three years.

Liga of Quito’s triumph on Saturday, meanwhile, marked the second straight year that a team from Ecuador has beaten Brazilian opposition to win the Sudamericana — clearly a remarkable achievement for a country which is increasingly selling players abroad at an ever-younger age. There were some weary limbs in the Liga side as the game moved into extra time, which was hardly surprising with only two of the starting line up under were 25. But they had enough to send Fortaleza heartbroken on the long road home.

Source: ESPN