After struggling with injuries for almost a year, Boca Juniors striker Dario Benedetto can say he is back.
Since he converted a penalty in the 2-1 loss to Racing in November last year, the 28-year-old Benedetto didn't know what it was to score a goal. One injury followed another, starting with a serious knee problem.
On Wednesday, he sat on Boca's bench for 76 minutes in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final against Brazil's Palmeiras.
Tense fans were expecting Carlos Tevez to produce the winner at La Bombonera but it was Benedetto who lit up the match with two late goals, putting Boca close to its ninth South American cup final. The striker scored with a header at 83 minutes and a blast from the edge of the box in the 88th.
The second leg of the semi-final against Luiz Felipe Scolari's Palmeiras will be next week in São Paulo. If Boca scores just once away goal the Brazilians will have to net four to reach the final.
Benedetto's first goal came after a corner, with the striker nodding it to the right of Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton. The second started with a stepover that fooled defender Luan and a powerful shot near the right post.
Boca players celebrated Benedetto as the man of the match despite him playing fewer than 20 minutes.
"I am deeply emotional after so many months suffering," said 28-year-old Benedetto, who before the injuries was being considered to play for Argentina in the last World Cup. "I have dealt with many setbacks because of injuries, that is why I am so happy to have scored tonight."
Boca coach Guillermo Schelotto praised his striker's spirit despite all the troubles he faced. "Dario goes to training and does not give up. He deserves this because he is a world-class player," he said.
Boca Juniors has won the Copa Libertadores six times and the club's fans are hoping for a final against arch-rivals River Plate. But that scenario became less likely on Tuesday with defending champions Grêmio of Brazil beating River Plate at the Monumental 1-0.
It was River's first home defeat in a year. The second leg will be in Brazil next Tuesday.
Grêmio and Boca played for the trophy in 2007, ending with a 5-0 win on aggregate for the Argentine side thanks to midfielder Juan Román Riquelme.
Boca lost its last Libertadores final against Brazil's Corinthians in 2012. Grêmio, meanwhile, has three trophies from South America's most prestigious club competition, having lifted the last against Argentina's Lanus.
Several South American media outlets have reported the region's football confederation is close to approving the return of Mexican teams to the Copa Libertadores in the 2020 edition. US Major League Soccer teams could also join for the first time.
But there are reportedly doubts over keeping a single final match in a predetermined host city. There are also questions about Mexican and US teams being able to play FIFA's Club World Cup in South American slots if they win the Copa Libertadores. That possibility did not exist when Mexican teams last played the in the Copa Libertadores.
BRANCO FOR BRAZIL
World Cup winner Branco is returning as head of Brazil's academy teams, replacing Edu Gaspar of the Brazilian football confederation.
The 54-year-old Branco, a former left-back of Porto, Genoa and several Brazilian teams, worked in that position between 2003 and 2007. He was involved with the Brazil teams that won Under-20 and Under-17 world titles in 2003.
Venezuela and Colombia have started their national cup finals.
In Colombia, former Copa Libertadores winners Once Caldas and Atlético Nacional drew 2-2 in Manizales. The second leg will be played in Medellín next Wednesday. The away goals rule does not apply to the final of the tournament.
In Venezuela, Zulia beat Aragua 2-1 and are the favorites to lift the trophy at home next week. Zulia won the tournament in 2016.
by By MAURICIO SAVARESE, AP