The build-up to the Copa Libertadores quarterfinal first leg between Club Tijuana and Atletico Mineiro Thursday has all been about that man Ronaldinho. And it suits Xolos just fine.
The club told the press on Wednesday that nobody from the squad would be available to give interviews, leaving the hordes of writers from different places in Mexico and overseas left with nothing to do but chase Ronaldinho and see if the Brazilian squad had anything to say.
It played a small part in helping to turn the focus of the game from one in which the home side -- a young borderland upstart -- had a certain amount of pressure to get a result at the Estadio Caliente, to being more of a show event in which the Brazilians are the stars.
Tickets flew in just two hours, but few realistically expect the home team to make the semifinals of the competition. Locals expect to see Ronaldinho's step-overs and flicks; that Brazilian magic with which he made his name.
Club Tijuana coach Antonio Mohamed -- who eventually did give a short interview after practice on Wednesday -- was quick to make the same point.
“We have little to lose and everything to gain,” said the outgoing coach. “That too is a big stimulus for our team.”
He added: “We know that this could be out last participation in the Copa, for many players and also as a coach. It’s an enormous motivation added to the fact that here at home we are a difficult side, with a united group.”
Realistically, it could be one game too far for Xolos. Mineiro not only has Ronaldinho, but also an in-form Jo (previously of Manchester City), the wise presence of Gilberto Silva and Diego Tardelli.
Mineiro coach Cuca was quick to stress that Xolos have their strengths too, naming Duvier Riascos, Fidel Martinez, Alfredo Moreno and Fernando Arce as some of the top players. He also pointed out that Tijuana has not conceded a goal at home in the tournament.
Asked about Tijuana's synthetic pitch, he said: “At least it is flat; many natural pitches have holes in them.”
Tardelli spoke after training to say his side wants goals or the victory and a repeat performance as that against Sao Paulo, which established Mineiro as not just the favorites for the quarterfinal, but also the whole Copa.
Mohamed said the key for Tijuana is not to concede, perhaps remembering the last round, in which Xolos drew 0-0 at home in the first leg against Palmeiras and got the 2-1 victory in Brazil.
That suggests the home side may end up playing on the counter-attack, which actually is its preferred strategy, exploiting the raw pace of Riascos and Martinez.
Mohamed seems confident, but isn’t getting carried away and both sides know that at this stage of a knockout competition, it’s all about the fine lines.
“We can beat anyone, but we also know that anyone can defeat us if we stop playing as a team,” ‘El Turco’ said.
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