Sao Paulo’s Copa Libertadores future hung in the balance when they were awarded a penalty just before the hour mark at home to Atletico Mineiro on Wednesday evening. With the score tied at 0-0 and a victory required if they were to pip Arsenal de Sarandi to second in the group, there was an awful lot riding on a successful conversion from 12 yards.

In the circumstances there was no one better equipped to take on the responsibility than Rogerio Ceni, the 40-year-old goalkeeper who will end his 21-year association with the club when he retires at the end of the year. With a large chunk of his impressive total of 108 career goals coming from the penalty spot, he was by far the most reliable option.

But while he was on paper the best choice, he was also saddled with the knowledge of the penalty’s importance, both for the club and his own legacy. In truth, his place in the Sao Paulo hall of fame was never in doubt, but as he waited for the referee to blow his whistle, he could not help but consider the consequences of failure. “I imagined all the scenarios of what could happen”, he said after the match. “It crossed my mind that it could be my last ever game in the Libertadores.”

Ceni was between the sticks when Sao Paulo last won the competition in 2005. He was there, also, when they lost the 2006 final to Internacional. And when they lost in consecutive quarter-finals to Gremio, Fluminense and Cruzeiro between 2007 and 2009. Not to mention during their semi-final defeat to Internacional in 2010. If he missed, yet another elimination at the hands of a fellow Brazilian team was in the offing.

His stilted run up prolonged the anticipation, prolonged the nervous agony of the Sao Paulo support, but when he did finally strike the ball he did so cleanly, precisely, sending his opposite number Victor the wrong way as the ball nestled in the right corner of the net. The celebration said it all: fists pumping, face contorted into an unbridled rictus, it was a pure release of tension. His team-mates mobbed him; Ceni, ever the professional, implored them to retain their focus.

His anxiety was eased, once and for all, when young substitute Ademilson converted Osvaldo’s cutback to double Sao Paulo’s advantage with just less than ten minutes to play, confirming their place in the last 16 and extending Ceni’s Libertadores career by at least another two matches.

Due to the quirks of the Libertadores rules, Sao Paulo’s opponents in the first knockout round will be Wednesday’s vanquished opponents, Atletico Mineiro, whose playmaker Ronaldinho sparked Ceni’s ire by explained after the event that the match “was just a big training session for the next round”, as he left the pitch at half-time. “He can play how he wants”, Ceni replied. “Next time it’s going to count.”

While Ronaldinho’s comments received the bulk of post-match attention, it was the performance of Sao Paulo playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso that most caught the eye during the 90 minutes. Blighted by injuries and a lack of confidence, he is yet to repay the near £8M that Sao Paulo invested to sign him from Santos in September last year, but on Wednesday gave the clearest indication yet that the talent is still there if harnessed correctly. 

Given space to spread his wings by the enforced absence of Jadson, Ganso wore the number eight shirt but played as a classic number 10, dictating the rhythm of the home side’s play and making ample use of the pace of those around him. He was involved in both goals and gave perhaps his best all-round performance for the club so far. "Everyone worked hard, but we won because of the crowd and our number eight”, Ceni remarked.

Jadson will return from suspension for the last 16 tie, leaving Sao Paulo coach Ney Franco in a quandary. Ganso and Jadson have rarely worked effectively in tandem, each requiring the outlet of two speedy wide men to make best use of their passing ability. The team have often been too static when both have been deployed, lacking the pace to penetrate opposition defences. Against a team as devastating going forward as Atletico Mineiro, Sao Paulo can ill-afford to lack attacking potency themselves.

It is therefore likely that one or the other will have to give way if Franco’s men are to overcome the team with the best record of any during the group stage and prolong their goalkeeper’s continental farewell tour into the last eight. “We are alive”, Ceni enthused after the final whistle. For how much longer remains to be seen.

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