Lib­er­ta­dores Cup Brazil and Ar­gentina dom­i­nate

Big two na­tions dom­i­nate group stage of South Amer­ica’s pre­mier club com­pe­ti­tion

World Soccer - - Contents - TIM VICK­ERY

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

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