Libertadores Cup Brazil and Argentina dominate
Big two nations dominate group stage of South America’s premier club competition
The re-organisation of this year’s Libertadores Cup opened up extra slots for Brazilian and Argentinian sides – and the effects were clear from the group phase, played between the start of March and the end of May.
All eight groups were topped by teams from the continent’s big two: Atletico Mineiro, Santos, Palmeiras, Gremio and Botafogo from Brazil, and an Argentinian trio of River Plate, Lanus and San Lorenzo.
All of which makes it even more astonishing that Flamengo failed to reach the last 16, after the Rio club had invested heavily and were among the tournament favourites.
After recent frustrations in the competition, the club’s fans were convinced that this would be their year. And they went home happy from their three home games, all of which were won. But Flamengo lost all their away fixtures, in part because a slow defensive unit tended to retreat too much, which allowed opponents to apply pressure.
Even so, Flamengo looked safe going into the final 20 minutes of their last group game. They led away at San Lorenzo, while fellow Brazilians Atletico Paranaense were losing in Chile to Universidad Catolica. In order for Flamengo to be eliminated, both scorelines would have to be overturned – and that is exactly what happened.
There was a flurry of goals in Santiago, with Atletico scoring twice to take the lead, Catolica equalising and then the Brazilians finding a late winner. Flamengo, meanwhile, collapsed under late pressure, with a stoppage-time goal giving San Lorenzo a 2-1 win.
The other Brazilian side who failed to make the cut were Chapecoense, who are rebuilding after that horrific air disaster at the end of November. Although they outdid expectations in their debut campaign, they could have done even better.
In the penultimate round of group games they won 2-1 away to Lanus, probably the finest victory in the club’s history. But they were later stripped of the points as defender Luiz Otavio should have been serving a suspension. The circumstances are confused, but it appears that even though the club were told he was ineligible before the game, they selected him anyway and he scored the winning goal. Chapecoense are appealing, but as it stands that selection decision has deprived them of a place in the last 16.
Argentina also had an unfashionable provincial debutant in Atletico Tucuman from the north of the country. They too fell short, but won plenty of friends with their bold commitment to attractive football. The other Argentinian casualty was Estudiantes, who had Juan Sebastian Veron returning for a last hurrah but lacked the attacking quality to get out of a difficult group which also claimed the scalp of reigning champions Atletico Nacional.
The Colombians paid what has become the common price for success in South American club football. Last year’s triumph had put their players in the shop window
Following its re-organisation, the competition now moves into unchartered waters
and left the team in a transitional phase, and there was no way back after they lost their first three games. While fellow Colombian teams Millonarios and Junior Barranquilla failed to make it through the qualifiers, Medellin and Santa Fe pulled up short in the group stage – the latter despite some fine moments from playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero, who is rebuilding a career that had run off the rails. However, Santa Fe could not break down the tight defence of Bolivia’s The Strongest and save themselves with a last-day win.
Of the teams that have made it into the knockout stage, who might challenge the Brazil-Argentina axis, which also includes Atletico Paranaense and Godoy Cruz, who finished as group runners-up?
Ecuador’s Barcelona look interesting and they were the first team to seal their place in the last 16. They combined effective defence with lightning counterattack and their playmaker Cristian Aleman has been the revelation of the competition so far. And their Guayaquil neighbours Emelec are also developing
nicely under Alfredo Arias, who has rebuilt the side with a back three and attacking threat down the flanks.
Nacional of Uruguay had the tightest defence in the group phase and will be dogged opponents, while The Strongest have also learned how to defend away from home and will always be a danger at the extreme altitude of La Paz, although their form appeared to peak early in the year. The qualification of compatriots Jorge Wilstermann was something of a surprise and seems to confirm hints of improvement in Bolivian football, but further progress is unlikely. Guarani of Paraguay are a humble outfit, but they reached the semi-finals two years ago.
Following its re-organisation, the competition now moves into unchartered waters. Rather than being squeezed into the first half of the year as usual, the 2017 Libertadores will go on until the end of November. The transfer window will have an impact, which makes predictions difficult, but the group phase clearly sets up the big Brazilian clubs, followed by the Argentinians, as title favourites.
Out...Paolo Guerrero (in white) can’t keep Flamengo in the tournament as they lose to San Lorenzo
Revelation...Christian Aleman of Ecuador’s Barcelona
Banned...Luiz Otavio (centre) scored Chapecoense’s winner at Lanus but should not have been playing