The fairytale goes on. Little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador are through to the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores, after eliminating Pumas of Mexico on penalties.
As so often in football, the line between success and failure proved wafer thin. Back in February, Independiente could hardly have come closer to falling in the qualifying round. With the last kick of the game in Asuncion, Guarani of Paraguay were given a penalty; up stepped Uruguayan Hernan Rodrigo Lopez, vastly experienced and a penalty taking specialist. If he scored then Guarani were through and Independiente were out -- but he struck his kick high into the night air and the Ecuadorian adventure was underway.
On the way to the quarterfinals they eliminated giants such as Colo Colo of Chile and then, biggest of all, reigning champions River Plate of Argentina. They produced some wonderfully stubborn rearguard actions, with keeper Librado Azcona excelling on the rare occasions when the centre-back combination of Arturo Mina and Luis Caicedo were beaten. But the team can also play.
Independiente, from the outskirts of Quito, have only been in their national first division since 2010. The club's model is based on youth development -- international winger Jefferson Montero (now at Swansea) is their most famous graduate so far, but with more to follow. In the current campaign, teenage left winger Brian Cabezas looks a real find; all round midfielder Jefferson Orejuela has shown impressive dynamism; playmaker Junior Sornoza strikes the ball wonderfully well; and strong centre-forward Jose Angulo is a handful for any opposing defence.
Angulo was on target twice in the first leg and appeared to have put his team 3-0 in front before his shot came back off the inside of the post and into the grateful arms of the Pumas keeper. Within two minutes, Pumas had struck a vital away goal for 2-1.
The expectation for the return game in Mexico City was that Pumas would press from the outset. Instead Independiente came out to play. Three times Angulo came close to scoring, but in their first meaningful attack, Pumas took the lead. A fine diagonal pass by Jose Ruiz put Argentine right winger Ismael Sosa behind the defensive line and he scored with a neat cross-shot. Two minutes later he did it again. Once more he latched on to a well-placed diagonal ball, this time from Javier Cortes, and fired home emphatically from the edge of the penalty area.
Pumas had been free scorers in their home games, taking control of midfield and bringing the wingers, Sosa and the Colombian Luis Quinones into play. But Independiente did not let them dominate the game. Instead, with Orejuela working hard, the Ecuadorians enjoyed the bulk of the possession -- but when, 10 minutes into the second half, they were starting to look dangerous, disaster struck. Left-back Luis Ayala committed a cruel foul on Sosa and was sent off; as he traipsed off the field it looked like the end of the dream.
Instead, Independiente were soon level -- with a mixture of determination, skill and a slice of fortune. A run from deep in his own half by Julio Angulo led to a free kick wide on the left; Sornoza whipped it in right footed, curling towards the goal, and it went through a crowd of players before flying through the legs of unsighted goalkeeper Alejandro Palacios.
The player who most blocked his view was Arturo Mina, who was offside at the moment the kick was taken and, although he did not touch the ball, the tall centre-back was clearly interfering with play. But the goal stood. And in an open last few minutes the Ecuadorians even had chances to clinch matters with a second, but it ended 2-1 and a penalty shootout.
The shootout saw everyone finding the target until Sosa stepped up. With two goals in the match and eight in the competition, the former Argentine under-20 international had been one of the stars of this year's Libertadores. If anyone seemed likely to score in the shootout, it was him.
But his penalty was struck at mid-height to the keeper's right, and Azcona dived to make the save. Just as Hernan Rodrigo Lopez had proved an unlikely villain for Guarani, so did Sosa for Pumas.
All five Independiente penalty takers kept their heads in admirable style to win the shootout 5-3, and the team now belong to the best four in their continent. This tiny club from Ecuador must now feel that they are capable of taking on the world. Now they must wait until July for the next glamorous encounter: a semifinal against Boca Juniors of Argentina.