In last week's semifinal of the Copa Sudamericana, Atletico Junior of Colombia wasted a penalty in front of their own fans in Barranquilla. James Sanchez had a weak shot saved. But it hardly mattered. Against fellow Colombians Santa Fe, Junior were a goal up on the night and 3-0 ahead on aggregate, and that is the way that it stayed.
This week's penalty miss may prove more costly. Sanchez had already been substituted when Junior were awarded a spot kick against Brazil's Atletico Paranaense. Instead, Rafael Perez stepped up. In the quarterfinal he had blasted home a penalty in the time honoured style of the rustic centre-back. He went for the same approach once more -- but the fact that this was taking place in the final added pressure to the occasion and undid his aim. His kick thudded against the bar, and inside the last 20 minutes, the score in the first leg remained 1-1 -- and that is the way it finished.
The customary stifling heat and humidity of Barranquilla produced a slow burner. Little of note took place in the first half. The Brazilians were cautious, and spent much of their time deep inside their own half. Junior needed guile to break them down, and badly missed suspended star centre-forward Teo Gutierrez. Playmaker Jarlan Barrera combined promisingly with striker Luis Diaz down the left, but they could not find a way through.
It was a surprise when Atletico took the lead early in the second half. But the manner of the goal was no surprise. In the semifinal against fellow Brazilians Fluminense, wingers Nikao and Marcelo Cirino had run riot down the flanks. At some point it was clear that one of them would get a run at the home defence. Nikao exploded into space, and slipped a pass for centre-forward Pablo to sweep home at the near post. It was probably no surprise that Junior was soon on level terms -- a draw was the least they deserved. But in this case the manner of the goal was surprising.
Atletico had plenty of big men back in their penalty area, but failed to deal with a routine high ball and Yony Gonzalez turned athletically to his left to volley home. Atletico were undone once more in the air, scrambling a corner off the line and then, with the defence still rattled, conceding the penalty when substitute Rony caught left-back German Gonzalez on the edge of the area. But Perez missed, and while Junior pressed to the end, forcing keeper Santos into some smart saves, there was no further scoring.
Far from the best in this game, Atletico Paranaense should nevertheless be the happier of the two sides. They now make the long trip back to Curitiba, where they can rest up before next Wednesday's return game. Junior, meanwhile, meet Medellin in the first leg of the final of the Colombian championship. The Brazilians, then, will be the fresher side, and their artificial pitch gives them an extra advantage.
And there is no need for them to chase the game, and have their sluggish centre-backs exposed against the pace of the Junior strikers. That penalty blasted against the bar by Perez ensures that things are all square when the action resumes next week.