ABU DHABI // Atlante last night booked a semi-final date with Barcelona after defeating Auckland City 3-0 at the Zayed Sports City Stadium. The match against the European champions will have extra spice for Santiago Solari, who spent five years at Real Madrid, Barca's arch-rivals, and he pulled the strings brilliantly here. With victory assured thanks to goals from Daniel Arreola and Christian Bermudez, the Atlante coach Jose Gaudalupe Cruz replaced Solari with Wednesday's semi-final in mind yet the Mexicans still managed to add a third through Lucas Silva.
Paul Posa, the Auckland coach, had declared Atlante the classiest side in the competition - behind Barcelona and Estudiantes - before the match and the "Iron Colts" did not take long to show why. With Solari dictating the tempo, Atlante played with poise and authority and they thought they had scored after nine minutes, but the referee, Coffi Codjia, ruled the effort out for handball. The Kiwis were unable to find a foothold in the game and found themselves pulled apart by Solari's runs and distribution. And he almost fashioned the opener.
The Argentina international played Arreola in down the left, and the winger's inch-perfect cross was met by Rafael Marquez, who could only toe-poke the ball over the bar at the near-post. Codjia wrongly booked Arreola for handball, before Guillermo Rojas tricked his way past Chad Coombes and fired into the side netting. For all their possession, though, Atlante were struggling to find a way past the dogged rearguard of Posa's battling side.
It took until the 34th minute for Auckland to muster up a shot; Korean Lee Ki Hyung blasting over from 25 yards. Then Marquez won a corner which Rojas lofted in dangerously. A mini-game of head tennis ensued before Auckland's Adam McGeorge scuffed his clearance straight to Arreola who dispatched the gift into the bottom corner. Scenting blood, Atlante went for the kill. Rojaz fed Marquez who won another corner. The pair linked again from the set-piece and only a goal-line header from the redoubtable Ian Hogg prevented Marquez doubling Atlante's lead.
A rare Auckland free-kick deep saw Lee fire into the side netting on the stroke of half-time. The interval did little to interrupt Atlante's dominance and they started the second half on the front foot, with Marquez only inches away from heading his side into a two-goal lead. The same player then missed a pair of chances as Atlante, playing slightly deeper, looked to hit Auckland on the break. Instead, it was the Mexican's Argentine goalkeeper Federico Vilar who was called into action for the first time. Having beaten his opposing full-back, Jason Hayne's cross evaded the entire Atlante defence and found Ian Dickinson.
Only a desperate slide from centre-half Miguel Martinez prevented the Englishman finding the back of the net. The ball, however, fell invitingly for McGeorge to atone for his earlier error, but the midfielder went for placement when power was required; Vilar scrambled to push the shot away. In an attempt to shake up their frontline, Auckland substituted the quiet Daniel Koprivcic for Grant Young. But it was Atlante who doubled their advantage. Bermudez, the cherubic midfielder, exchanged passes with Marquez to shoot past Jacob Spoonley.
The Atlante coach clearly thought the game was over, judging by his decision to replace Solari with Silva, and it probably should have been but Marquez pushed an effort wide having found himself in acres of space. Cruz had seen enough from his wasteful Mexican striker, hauling him off and bringing on Gabriel Pereyra. With full-time approaching, Fernando Navarro skipped down the wing and crossed for Silva to side-foot home.