COPA DE LA LIGA 2021
Vélez Sarsfield 1
Newell’s Old Boys 0
🏟️ Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires
Vélez Sarsfield emerged the victors in Newell’s Old Boys’ opening match of Group B of the new Copa de la Liga on Saturday 13 February.
Manager Frank Kudelka opted for an experimental line-up going into the game and surprised everyone by leaving captain Maxi Rodríguez on the bench. In came Julián Marcioni, fresh from a successful loan spell at Atlanta, while Nicolás Castro lined up alongside Marcioni and stand-in captain Nacho Scocco in attack. Braian Rivero was also returned to the side after a loan spell at Independiente del Valle while Yonathan Cabral and Manuel Capasso formed a partnership in central defence for the first time.
Kudelka’s gamble on a side that were largely unfamiliar with each other was evident from the off, with Vélez taking control for much of the first-half.
La Lepra nearly went behind after 12 minutes when Ricky Centúrion somehow hit the post twice with two consecutive headers. His first effort was spectacular and had Alan Aguerre beaten, and his second, a few seconds later, seemed destined for goal before it rattled the woodwork. It was an incredible sequence of events not often witnessed in a football match and Newell’s breathed a sigh of relief that the score remained 0-0.
Ten minutes later, Pablo Pérez was yellow carded for a challenge that would have led to a red card in many leagues around the world. It turned out to be a flashpoint in the game that would have dire consequences for Newell’s in the second half.
Having played most of the opening half an hour in Newell’s Old Boys’ half, Vélez took the lead on 34 minutes as former Defensa y Justicia forward Juan Martín Lucero rose high between two Newell’s defenders to head a perfect cross into the net. Newell’s keeper Alan Aguerre, returning to action after 3 months on the sidelines due to injury, tried his best to keep it out but couldn’t.
Newell’s were tormented by Vélez in the first half and barely got out of their own half but with the start of the second half brought new hope for La Lepra.
Whatever Frank Kudelka said at half-time seemed to work as the side showed more speed, heart and gusto.
Julián Marcioni took matters into his own hands early on in the second period but dragged a shot just wide as an equaliser beckoned.
Just as things were looking up for Newell’s, disaster struck as Pablo Pérez received his second yellow card for a pull-back and was given his marching orders on 56 minutes. Newell’s would have to play the rest of the match with just 10 men.
Vélez took this as the catalyst to increase their lead but Alan Aguerre did well to save from Benjamín Galdames moments after Pérez went for his early bath.
Kudelka then went for broke and sent Maxi Rodríguez on to try and create a bit of magic that might lead to a Newell’s equaliser. His touch and ability was, as usual, a step above most of the players on the pitch and although Vélez had a goal disallowed on 79 minutes, Maxi really should have equalised a minute later as Newell’s broke up the field.
The 40-year-old former Atlético and Liverpool man was sent clean through with only the keeper to beat but got his foot under the ball too much and sent it over the bar. The commentators on Argentine TV called it the ‘chance of the match’ and it’s hard not to think of what could have been had La Fiera slot it home.
Maxi’s chance wasn’t to be the last chance Newell’s would have. In fact, Vélez almost opened the door for Newell’s to grab a late equaliser despite the one-man advantage.
With three minutes remaining, Alexís Rodríguez ploughed down the right flank and cut a great ball back to Mariano Bíttolo for a clear shot. Not known for his prowess from the edge of the box, wing-back Bíttolo lifted his shot high and wide.
That was to be La Lepra’s last goal opportunity and despite a valiant second-half effort, Newell’s left Buenos Aires empty-handed.
It must be noted that Vélez are a consistent side who played in the semi-final of the Copa Sudamericana just a month ago while Frank Kudelka is still figuring out his best 11 from a squad that has just been boosted by two experienced players who were not yet ready to play tonight: Franco Escobar and Fernando Belluschi.
With further returns expected, in the form of Sebastián Palacios and Cristian Lema, it’s fair to acknowledge that the Newell’s team that we saw against Vélez is very unlikely to be the same team that is sent out to compete for the red and black shirt throughout this competition.