SAO PAULO (AP) — From Argentina's second division to Copa Libertadores champion in three years. That is the dream of tiny Atletico Tucuman after remarkably reaching the quarterfinals.
Known ironically as "The Giants of the North," Tucuman is the only team left which has yet to lift the trophy. The blue and whites advanced after a 2-1 aggregate triumph over two-time winner Atletico Nacional of Colombia on Tuesday, leading fans to take to the the streets of San Miguel de Tucuman, an isolated city of 550,000 inhabitants in northern Argentina.
Club star and forward Luis Miguel Rodriguez said the historic result should not make Tucuman believe it can repeat the feat of River Plate in 2016; winning the Copa Libertadores shortly after relegation. He believes keeping modest goals will help the team thrive.
"We hope to go as far as possible in the Copa Libertadores, but we need to think about the Argentine championship because we need to keep Tucuman in the first division," Rodriguez said.
Until this result, Tucuman was better known in the Copa Libertadores for its 2017 odyssey to play in Ecuador in a pre-group stage tie against El Nacional.
Problems with a chartered flight struck Tucuman in Guayaquil, on Ecuador's Pacific coast. Players were forced to travel to Quito in two different jets, but one was delayed. That was precisely the one that carried kits for the match.
El Nacional wanted the referee to abandon the match, but Argentina's ambassador in Ecuador, Luis Juez, intervened. "Wait for us," he told match broadcaster Fox Sports as the team bus went at full speed.
Upon arrival, the players wore the shirts of Argentina's Under-20 team, which was playing a tournament in Ecuador at the same time.
Tucuman won 1-0 and qualified for the group stage. Striker Fernando Sampedri, the scorer of the winning goal, had the name of U20 player Leandro Martinez on his shirt.
This time, Tucuman will not face such an endurance test, but a much tougher one against defending champion Gremio of Brazil.
Other things to know as the tournament reaches the last eight stage:
Argentina and Brazil have seven teams in the quarterfinals.
There are four from Argentina for the first time, with Tucuman alongside giants Boca Juniors, River Plate and Independiente.
Brazil will push forward with Gremio, Cruzeiro and Palmeiras, all previous winners of the Copa.
Chile's Colo Colo is the other side. The 1991 champion made it to the quarterfinals for the first time in 21 years after beating a recently dismantled team of Brazilian champion Corinthians. Former Chile forward Jorge Valdivia leads Colo Colo.
The quarterfinals of Copa Libertadores will be played in September and October.
CONMEBOL ON THE SPOT
CONMEBOL is under fire after two opposing rulings in the Copa Libertadores this week.
On Tuesday, nine hours before the round of 16 second leg between Brazil's Santos and Argentina's Independiente, the confederation decided the latter won the first leg 3-0 because the Brazilian side fielded an irregular player. The ruling angered Santos fans, who fought with police and threw fireworks onto the pitch on Tuesday with the second leg at 0-0 after 80 minutes. The referee ended the match before the final whistle, and Independiente advanced.
On Wednesday, CONMEBOL cleared River Plate of any punishment for fielding an irregular player against Racing in their first leg. The result in that match - also 0-0 - was allowed to stand, and River beat Racing in the second leg 3-0.
CONMEBOL said it made a mistake in February when River Plate asked about suspended players for matches in South American tournaments, and the soccer body did not include midfielder Bruno Zuculini in the list.
Santos and Racing executives have promised to appeal to the Court for Arbitration of Sport.
GREMIO SQUEEZES IN
Defending champion Gremio scored the winner after 90 minutes of the second-leg thriller with Argentina's Estudiantes de la Plata to take their tie to penalties.
The match in Porto Alegre was 1-1 at the end of second-half stoppage time when a crossed ball found midfielder Alisson near the first post. The decisive header gave Gremio a victory by the same score Estudiantes made in their encounter in Buenos Aires three weeks earlier. In the shootout, Gremio scored from the spot from all five opportunities, while Estudiantes defender Gaston Campi put his over the bar.
The Brazilian side will face Atletico Tucuman, who stunned two-time Copa Libertadores winner Atletico Nacional from Colombia.
TEVEZ'S QUEST WITH BOCA JUNIORS CONTINUES
Former Manchester United, Manchester City, and Juventus striker Carlos Tevez wants to finish his career in style with his boyhood team Boca Juniors, winning once more the continental title that lifted him to fame in 2003. He might be on the right track, since Boca was the only team that cruised into the quarterfinals.
After a 2-0 home win, the Argentine side looked comfortable playing at Paraguay's Libertad from the very start of their second leg on Thursday. The host opened the score after 12 minutes, but Boca quickly dashed their hopes with goals in the 19th and 22nd minutes, forcing the Paraguayans to score five more goals to qualify.
Libertad managed to level the match score from the spot before halftime. But near the end of the match, the 34-year-old Tevez and Colombian midfielder Edwin Cardona netted two more to give Boca a 4-2 victory and boost their confidence for the quarterfinals against Brazil's Cruzeiro.
The Brazilian side advanced on away goals after losing to Flamengo 1-0 at home on Wednesday.
The Copa Libertadores results this week frustrated fans who expected to see two derbies in the quarterfinals.
Racing was eliminated by River Plate and failed to play the Avellaneda derby against archrival Independiente, the record seven-time winner of the Copa.
Colo Colo defeated Brazil's Corinthians on the away goals rule, preventing a Sao Paulo derby with Palmeiras.
Palmeiras qualified despite losing to Paraguay's Cerro Porteno 1-0 at home on Thursday.
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