The eruption within the Estadio Centenario that greeted the players was more than a match for the Puyehue volcano that had threatened to have the fixture called off.
The sixty thousand strong swarm of Peñarol fans decked out in yellow and gold created an atmosphere that cracked and smouldered as the teams ran out. It was a shame therefore that the match failed to sizzle in the manner which was anticipated.
There have been far duller deadlocks played out, if not for some wasteful finishing and the odd fine stop there would have been goals in the game. As is often the case however, nerves prevailed in this first leg of the 2011 Copa Libertadores final.
There were few outside Montevideo giving Peñarol any sort of chance going into this final so you would be forgiving for thinking that manager Diego Aguirre is delighted to be ‘as you were’ at the midway point of the tie.
The truth is though, Aguirre will know that Santos were there for the taking in Uruguay and his team will be lucky if they get anywhere near the number of chances they did at home when they travel to Brazil next week.
Aguirre’s captain, left-back Darío Rodríguez, had a glorious chance just before the interval. The full-back sprung Santos’ offside trap and bore down on goal like Stephenson’s Rocket, the inspiration for Peñarol’s team colours. Rodríguez lifted his shot over Santos ‘keeper Rafael only to see his effort land agonizingly on the roof of the net.
Lanky frontman Juan Manuel Olivera also came close during a gusty performance and the second half introduction of Peñarol stalwart Antonio Pacheco saw the home side looking the most likely to get a goal.
The home crowd did get the chance to celebrate in the dying embers of the match but Diego Alonso was correctly deemed to be in an offside position when he bundled home Luis Aguiar’s cross-cum-shot.
At half-time in the tie no doubt the happier of the two managers will be Santos’ Muricy Ramalho. The pragmatist would have know he had far more to lose than gain in the Centenario, especially given that he was missing four regular starters.
With captain Edu Dracena suspended and Brazil’s number 10 for the next decade Paulo Henrique Ganso out injured, as well as his two first choice full-backs, Ramalho set-up his team not to lose.
Mission accomplished as far as the manager who has won four out of the last five Brazilian league championships is concerned.
Whenever Santos did decide to try something in the final third it was usually sparked by a combination of stand-in captain Elano and the willing legs of Danilo.
The midfield duo combined to present Santos striker Zé Eduardo with the visitors’ best chance of the night. The Genoa-bound forward crashed in a shot from just off the penalty spot but the effort deflected clear after hitting the ribcage of Sebastián Sosa in the Peñarol goalmouth.
And what of young Neymar? Even if the 19-year-old failed to get on the scoresheet his performance will still dominate the headlines in South America. The Santos starlet picked up a booking early on in the first half for diving and at the interval he held an impromptu press conference, telling the journalists at pitchside he was not getting appropriate protection from the referee.
Neymar did seem to be coming in for some rough treatment from the Peñarol backline but his cries to referee Carlos Amarilla fell on deft ears. Amarilla’s nickname in his native Paraguay is el Diez, suggesting that he enjoys being the centre of attention just as much as the teenager with the skunk haircut.
Neymar will get another chance next Wednesday to do what Pelé last achieved and score the goals to make Santos the kings of the continent.
Meanwhile the Peñarol team remain free of flashy haircuts but full of grafters blessed with the ability to conjure something from nothing (think Neil Webb). The Uruguayans will be out to make the Santos fight over every blade in the grass in the Estádio do Pacaembu during the closing chapter of this final.
Peñarol (4-4-2): Sosa; González, Valdez, G. Rodriguez, D. Rodriguez; Corujo (Pacheco, 67), Freitas, Aguiar, Meir (Estoyanoff, 56); Martinuccio, Olivera (Alonso, 82).
Yellow cards: Matinuccio, Corujo, González
Santos (4-4-2): Rafael; Pará, Bruno Rodrigo, Durval, Alex Sandro; Adriano, Arouca, Danilo, Elano (Alan Patrick, 79); Neymar, Zé Eduardo (Bruno Aguiar, 89).
Yellow cards: Neymar, Arouca
Referee: Carlos Amarilla (Paraguay)