Substitute Cicero scored the only goal as Brazil’s Gremio defeated Argentina's Lanús 1-0 in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final on Wednesday night.
If the Southern Brazilian team holds off the Argentinians in Buenos Aires in the La Fortaleza stadium next Wednesday they will win their third South American crown. The last was in 1995.
Modest and suburban Lanús is in its first final. If they beat Gremio by a one-goal difference in the second leg, extra time will be played. If that difference persists, there will be a penalty shoot-out.
A stormy encounter in Porto Alegre was settled seven minutes from time when Cicero pounced on a headed knockdown by Jael.
Cicero, who had replaced Jaja midway through the second half, latched onto the loose ball and steered his shot past Lanus goalkeeper Esteban Andrada.
It was the decisive act of an ill-tempered between the clubs, in the showpiece game of South American club football that had been billed as a ‘Brazil v Argentina’ clásico.
The Argentine side had the best opportunities in the first half, forcing Gremio goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe to make two impressive saves. The Brazilians dominated in the second half, but struggled to break through.
So coach Renato Portaluppi decided to substitute striker Lucas Barrios with little known Jael and defensive midfielder Jailson with Cicero, who has barely played for Gremio. With local fans getting impatient, the winning goal came after Jael headed the ball on the edge of the box and Cicero appeared to put it in the back of the net.
"In moments like this you don't know whether you should cry or not," Cicero said. "I knew I had not come here for no reason."
Seven players were cautioned throughout the game, with Chilean referee Julio Bascunan being surrounded by players from both sides at the final whistle.
Gremio had dominated for long periods of the game but struggled to create many chances before Cicero's winner.
Lanús almost took the lead in the first half but Diego Braghieri's powerful downward header was brilliantly saved by Gremio goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe.
In the second leg Gremio will resent the absence of their Argentinian defender Walter Kannemann, who got suspended after a yellow card. The same will happen to Lanús defender Diego Braghieri, who left the Arena Gremio in tears.
"We reversed results that were far worse than this," Braghieri said. "In the first half we managed to hold them quite well. Then they came at us. They have a great team."
Despite their victory, Gremio players left the pitch upset after the referee refused to allow a penalty on Jael in the dying moments of the match.
Portaluppi, universally known as Renato Gaucho, said that the video assistant refereeing (VAR) authorised by South America's confederation CONMEBOL was useless in the first leg of the final.
"I ask Conmebol: why didn't they use VAR? We had a clear penalty and that could have made all the difference in this final. Even Stevie Wonder saw it was a penalty here," an angry Portaluppi said. "I hope the refereeing in Argentina is very different."
Lanús coach Jorge Almiron said his team lost "in a rebound, an isolated moment" from Gremio. "We haven't won away matches since round of 16, but this final is open," he said.
Lanús fans were also outraged at the end of the match, but not with the referee. A Gremio ballboy ran after goalkeeper Andrada and threatened to kick him near the end of the match as the Lanús player prepared to take a goal kick.
"We still have a match at home," midfielder Roman Martinez. "It won't be easy for them in La Fortaleza."
Even the build-up to the first leg had been dominated by controversy, with Gremio accused of hiring a scout to spy on opponents during training sessions.
ESPN Brasil reported that the individual recruited had used a variety of techniques including drones and cameras hidden in trees, buildings and walls to glean information on rival teams.
The second leg of the final takes place on November 29.