Jaguares have clearly established them as the most improbable team in this year's Copa Libertadores. Not even ten years old, the team defied the odds once again last Thursday night by pulling back a late goal from young forward Antonio Pedroza to earn a 1-1 draw even without the help of suspended forward Jackson Martinez. Add to that their wild away goals win over Junior and an historic 1-0 result against holders Internacional that all but secured qualification for the group stage, and you'll find a team perfectly happy with flying under the radar and grinding out improbable, but vital results.
The chiapanecos will have to show that kind of character once more on Thursday night as they travel to Asunción to take on Paraguayan outfit Cerro Porteño. Jaguares must get on the board against the team known as el ciclón, as a 0-0 draw would see Cerro through on away goals. Luckily, Martinez will return from the one game suspension incurred after his red card in the second leg against Junior, meaning Jaguares will join Cerro in having a full complement of players.
The problem for Jaguares is that in Cerro, they face a team that possesses many of the same qualities, a team who held 2009 champions Estudiantes scoreless over two legs after achieving an improbable comeback from a 2-0 deficit on the last day of the group stage to get to the knockout rounds. There are the skill players – playmaker Jonathan Fabbro and Argentine starlet Juan Manuel Iturbe come to mind – and a lethal goalscorer in Roberto Nanni, but it is also a very organized team side that can grind out results and plays until the final whistle.
While Jaguares were able to create their chances in the first leg and forced Cerro goalkeeper Diego Barreto into a few good saves, they will have to find a way to minimize the profligacy, as Cerro will be more aggressive and control even more of the possession while backed by the home crowd, meaning chances on goal could be few and far between for the visiting side. Though having Martinez back in the side will certainly provide a possible solution to this problem, the team also will have to work to limit the influence of players like Fabbro, Iturbe and Nanni.
The Porto-bound Iturbe will likely start on the bench, as he has for most of the tournament, but Fabbro and Nanni will be present from the opening whistle, and Fabbro in particular could prove problematic if not held in check. The lanky playmaker can expose opposing defenses with his intelligent touches and accurate passing, but he is also prone to disappearing from games. If the Jaguares midfielders can shackle him for 90 minutes and minimize his ability to get forward into the attack, where he was so dangerous in the first leg, they will be doing their chances of advancing a huge favor.
While an elimination in the quarterfinals would be a more than acceptable achivment for Jaguares, especially given their domestic form, manager José Guadalupe Cruz and the players know what with relegation staring them in the face come the start of the 2011-2012 season, this could be the best chance they have to make their mark in Latin American football. It's not quite a "now or never" situation, but you can be sure that Jaguares are well aware of the chance they have to etch another improbable chapter in their rapidly growing history.