There are still a few games to be played but Nacional are champions, they were simply unstoppable in the Apertura this season as they played entertaining football to thrash teams at times or dug in when necessary to record 1-0 victories. The Tricolor’s triumph is their third since 2009 which completes a hattrick of league championships for club president Robert Harrison.
Harrison must take credit for keeping his faith in young coach Gustavo Morinigo who had come so close in the 2012 Clausura but finished three points behind Libertad. Here we look at the five reasons for Nacional´s ninth title in their 108-year-history.
1. Julian Benítez
When Rodrigo Teixeira returned to Guaraní it meant the Academia had lost their main goalscorer over recent seasons, but in a shrewd bit of business they got then 25-year-old striker Julian Benitez as part of the deal. Sparingly used by Guaraní since his return from Mexico, where he played for León and Toros Neza from 2011 to 2012, there was the feeling that the diminuitive striker wasn’t going to fulfill his potential. But Morinigo got the best out of him playing him as the last man either up front alone or alongside a more physical teammate such as Ramón Cardozo. Benítez has great movement which always saw him find space inside the box, such as this header against Olimpia, or for the first of his two goals against Luque. Against General Díaz he came in off the left wing to score the winner and he often grabbed goals when it mattered like his brace against Cerro Porteño (the 1st and 3rd goals) in the Barrio Obrero derby. At the time of writing Benítez has 13 goals in 15 starts, he has been critical to Nacional’s success.
2. Big games
After a good start the question was how would Nacional fare when they met one of the big 3 (Cerro, Olimpia, Libertad) with last season’s defeat to a Cerro B team that crushed their title hopes still fresh in the memory. But a 3-0 win over Olimpia followed by a 4-1 rout of Cerro quashed any ideas that they would be fazed. To date they have played the Big 3 five times this year notching up five wins with a goal difference of +9.
A former defender, Gustavo Morinigo must have been concerned after the first two games of the season that saw his team had conceded eight goals. But after that they recruited veteran goalkeeper Justo Villar and so began a run of six cleansheets in seven games with the 2011 Copa America Goalkeeper of the Tournament making a crucial penalty save in the 1-0 win over General Diaz. Raúl Piris must also be commended, the captain and stalwart has won his 3rd title and it was fully deserved as he marshalled the defence superbly throughout the year.
The Uruguayan duo at Guarani (Palau/Orteman) the return of Guiñazú to Libertad, the holy trinity at Cerro (Oviedo/Dos Santos/Fabbro) all were put in the shade by the midfield unit of Marcos Riveros, Silvio Torales, Marcos Melgarejo and whoever joined them (be it Caceres Cañete, Ruiz Peralta or Cristaldo). Riveros was the anchor and protected his back four while starting attacking moves from the base of midfield, ably supported by Silvio Torales who is more technical and could use his range of passing to launch counter attacks. Melgarejo was immense once again, scoring seven from midfield including the winner against Libertad (his previous club) in both games.
5. Copa Libertadores
As is usual a team outside of the Copa Libertadores has picked up the Apertura title, while not wanting to take away from Nacional’s tremendous achievement it is impossible to overlook the physical and mental strain this tournament has on the teams involved. The long travel distances and the need for alternative sides in league matches often affects competing teams. Cerro Porteño probably wouldn’t have won the league but Libertad and Olimpia can both point to the premiere club tournament on the continent as major distraction, something that narrowed down the potential challengers to the Tricolor.
By Ralph Hannah