‘Ketchup striker’ Luiz Adriano conjured his Shakthar magic in the Libertadores

Goals, some strikers will tell you, are like ketchup. You can shake and shake and none will come out. But rest assured, when they do come, they’ll all come at once.

If that is the case, then Luiz Adriano is the ultimate red sauce striker; as streaky as they come, scoring in bursts that, if well-timed, can propel his team to brilliant runs of results.

The 33-year-old, now back in Brazil with Palmeiras, continued his latest splurge with a goal against Argentinian giants River Plate on Tuesday night, conjuring memories of his UEFA Cup success and glorious Champions League nights with Shakthar Donetsk.

Palmeiras travelled to Buenos Aires to play River in the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League equivalent. Up against a team that had reached the final in three of the previous five seasons, winning in 2015 and 2018, they were in for a major test.

River started the brighter, with Colombian forward Jorge Carrascal forcing Weverton into a smart, right-footed save early on. But Palmeiras grew into the game and, after 20 minutes, started to apply the plan cooked up by Portuguese manager Abel Ferreira.

The Verdao pressed River high up and looked to exploit the space behind their full-backs, and it soon paid off. Rony might have got a bit of luck with his deflected shot, but the bit of play through which the opening goal came was clearly the result of some strategic thinking.

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Shakhtar Donetsk Werder Bremen

Read: Remembering Shakhtar’s brilliant Brazilians who conquered Europe

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Palmeiras soon had the ball in the net again, but it was disallowed for offside. And minutes before the break, River’s brilliant playmaker Nacho Fernandez struck the bar with a dipping, curling free-kick. Half-time came and Palmeiras were in a narrow lead.

At that point, anyone who has watched the Libertadores in recent years would have been expecting one thing and one thing only: an onslaught from Marcelo Gallardo’s red-and-white shirted men.

But a minute into the second half the Brazilian side won the ball back in defence, worked a string of first-time passes through midfield and found Luiz Adriano, back to goal and closely marked on the halfway line.

It wasn’t the most promising situation, yet rather than hold it up and wait for his team-mates to advance Adriano pinned the Paraguayan international defender Robert Rojas, who had got a little too close, and bullied his way past like a steamroller going over hot asphalt.

River’s defence were all pushed up high, so there was Adriano, alone with a literal acre of space between him and the goalkeeper.

The ex-Shakthar forward set off at a speed that belied his 33 years, and Rojas did not stand a chance. The Brazilian stormed into the penalty area and slipped it through the legs of the advancing Franco Armani, doubling Palmeiras’ advantage.

It was a sucker punch that River could not recover from. Fifteen minutes later, a frustrated Carrascal would hack down Palmeiras’s brilliant young right-back Gabriel Menino from behind and earn himself a straight red card. From the resulting free-kick Matias Vina nodded in to make it three.

By the end, Palmeiras were living it up in the warm Buenos Aires summer night. There was time for a cheeky, Neymar-like bit of ball control from Menino to rub salt into the gaping River wound. And the Brazilians might even have made it four late on when Willian Bigode missed from five yards with the goal at his mercy.

Still, the result was more than satisfactory, and Adriano was able to reconjure a bit of the old magic.

It might not have worked out for him when he finally got his big move – 18 months at AC Milan brought just seven goals – and he has been blighted by injury problems at Palmeiras, but when he’s on his game, Adriano remains a thrilling player to watch.

As his manager Ferreira highlighted last night, the former Selecao striker’s experience also gives Palmeiras an extra advantage.

“You need to have courage,” the Portuguese boss said post-match, “but to have courage you need examples. Luiz Adriano gave us a lot of confidence and was a coach on the pitch.”

The goal was his fifth in five games in South America’s top club tournament this season and, after a run of one in the previous six, his third in his last three in all competitions. Two of those have come in cup semi-finals; the first to book Palmeiras’s place in the Copa do Brasil final and now this one to put them in command in the Libertadores.

Palmeiras, then, could end this elongated, pandemic-affected season in truly magnificent style. The Copa do Brasil final will be a home-and-away affair against Gremio in early February, by which time the Libertadores will have been concluded.

Next week, they face play again in Brazil, and, as Millionarios boss Gallardo said last night, River will need “an epic night” to overturn the Brazilian’s first-leg advantage.

Unless River can pull off what would be a truly miraculous comeback, Palmeiras will go through to face the winner of Boca Juniors vs Santos at the Maracana on January 30.

For Palmeiras fans, the omens are good. The club’s first, and to-date only, Libertadores trophy came in 1999. Their semi-final opponents that year were River and they beat the Argentinians 3-0 in one of the two legs.

In a superstitious country like Brazil, that will be looked upon as a sign. Palmeiras will just have to hope Adriano’s ketchup-like goals don’t get stuck in the bottle neck again before history can repeat itself.

By Joshua Law

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