Cerro Porteno gave it their best shot. But yet again the Paraguayan side have fallen at the semifinal stage of a continental competition. It has become a club curse. Their big local rivals Olimpia are the cup kings, full of silverware. Cerro, meanwhile do not have a continental title to their credit, and have never even reached the final. Hopes that 2016 would bring the run to an end died in Medellin on Thursday, where they were eliminated by Atletico Nacional of Colombia and bowed out of the Copa Sudamericana, the local Europa League equivalent. The previous night's visitors to the Atansio Giradot stadium had been rock group Guns 'n' Roses. The paradise city, though, was nothing but a mirage for the Paraguayans.
A 1-1 draw in the first leg, three weeks ago in Asuncion, meant that Cerro Porteno had to score. A 0-0 draw would take Atletico Nacional through to the final on the away goals rule, just as happened in the previous semifinal on Wednesday night, when Brazil's Chapecoense knocked out San Lorenzo of Argentina.
Cerro set up their team to attack. In came experienced left winger Marcelo Estigarribia, with the hero of the campaign, Cecilio Dominguez, switching flanks to the right in a front three. It was Estigarribia who caused moments of alarm in the Colombian defence in the first half, getting in two dangerous crosses that called for excellent clearances by the home defence.
But for much of the time, predictably, Nacional had the ball at their feet. They are a fine possession side, their game built around the cerebral talents of playmaker Macnelly Torres. This time, though, he had a problem. Dynamic centre-forward Miguel Borja was missing, suspended after being sent off in the first leg. He was replaced by Ezequiel Rescaldani, an Argentine target man with none of the same speed to burst behind the opposing defence. Cerro, then, were able to squeeze the play, interrupt Nacional's rhythm and look to play up to their big centre-forward Guillermo Beltran and break around him at pace.
It was a first half of few chances, but with Cerro Porteno needing to force the issue, it was clear that space would open up after the interval. Torres found his range, but Nacional squandered some promising situations. Cerro brought on Joao Rojas to attack down the right, moving Dominguez central behind Beltran. It nearly paid off immediately. A pass from Dominguez put Beltran clear on goal. He shot hard and straight, but keeper Franco Armani got enough body on the ball to turn it over the bar. The chance of the match had gone.
There might have been others had Dominguez stayed central. Nacional looked vulnerable there, with two slow centre-backs dropping off, and Diego Arias with a lot of room to cover in defensive midfield. But straight away Dominguez was pushed left, with Estigarribia replaced and a second centre-forward, Pablo Velasquez, introduced. It may well have been a mistake. Cerro's best remaining chances came through the middle, with thrusting midfielder Rodrigo Rojas driving through to good effect.
Most of the chances, though, were coming at the other end -- most clearly with six minutes of normal time left, when a delightful Torres chip sent Orlando Berrio haring through on goal. Cerro's Marcos Riveros hauled him down and did not even wait for the red card to make his way off the pitch. Down to 10 men it was all over for the Paraguayans -- unless they could snatch something from a set piece. And in the closing stages they even sent keeper Anthony Silva forward for a corner.
Nacional, though, kept their discipline and stayed out of danger. The current South American champions, holders of the Copa Libertadores, they go off to Japan next month to represent the continent in the Club World Cup. They have just won the Colombian Cup, and are in the quarterfinals of the league. And now they have a home and away final against Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericana. They have picked up the winning habit -- though they may well pay for it in an end of year fixture pile up.