Copa Libertadores: Brazil boom should continue

Posted by Tim Vickery

AP Photo./Jose PatricioAlessandro, of Corinthians, holds the Copa Libertadores trophy. The reigning Libertadores champions have reinforced themselves with Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto.

Who can stop the Brazilians? It is the big question as the 54th version of the Copa Libertadores kicks off.

Once upon a time, South America's premier club competition was dominated by clubs from Argentina -- the country still boasts more titles (22) than anywhere else. But the lead is being whittled down. Triumphs in each of the last three seasons have taken Brazil to 16 -- and few would bet against another Brazilian victory this time round.

There are two trends here, one long-term and one more recent. The first is that these days Brazil's clubs give the competition a higher priority than before. The Argentine stranglehold began almost by default, when, in 1965, Santos of Pele opted out of the Libertadores.

In the days before blanket TV coverage, there was little financial incentive to take part, and Santos preferred to travel the world playing glamorous friendlies. For two years in the 1960s there was no Brazilian participation in the Libertadores.

The competition took on a much higher profile in Brazil in the early '90s, when it provided a showcase for Tele Santana's stylish Sao Paulo to show their stuff. And since, in the last 21 years, there have only been three finals without a Brazilian team.

The more recent development is the boom in the finances of Brazil's big clubs, with a stronger currency and greatly increased revenues from TV and sponsorship. This began to make itself felt in 2008, and five years later its influence is clear from a glance at the squad lists of the Brazilians giants.

Reigning Libertadores and World Club champions Corinthians have added to their roster the international duo of striker Alexandre Pato and playmaker Renato Augusto, both brought back from Europe. Sao Paulo have repatriated 2010 World Cup captain and centre back Lucio and have also signed a number of interesting attacking options from other Brazilian clubs.

Current domestic champions Fluminense have a strong squad, spearheaded by centre forward Fred, who scored such a fine goal for Brazil at Wembley last week. Atletico Mineiro have managed to retain the Ronaldinho-Bernard combination (the first supplies the range of passing, the second the pace) that made them such an attractive side last year.

And Gremio have gone on a last-minute shopping spree, bringing in Argentine international centre forward Hernan Barcos as well as the loan signings of clever striker Welliton from Spartak Moscow and Arsenal's attacking left back Andre Santos. With such strength in depth, it is almost inconceivable that the Libertadores final will not feature at least one of these giants.

But Brazil's clubs are unlikely to have it all their own way. The Libertadores is not like that. Distances are vast in South America. There are long journeys for the away side to endure, and intimidating atmospheres at the end of them -- as well as climatic conditions such as altitude.

Both Sao Paulo and Atletico Mineiro, for example, have to visit the extreme altitude of La Paz, where they will face The Strongest, winners of the last three Bolivian championships.

There is also the tactical aspect. Santos of Brazil won the title in 2011. But they were the only Brazilian team to reach the quarterfinals -- and they rode their luck in the second round to get past America of Mexico. And yet this came at a time when the financial chasm between the big Brazilian clubs and the rest of the continent had already opened up.

One of the explanations for the stunning failure of the Brazilians that year was that they struggled to combat tactical systems to which they were not accustomed. In particular, they had problems against opponents who fielded strikers in wide positions, exposing the defensive weaknesses of Brazilian fullbacks and the attacking deficiencies of the central midfielders.

Brazilian football tends to live in tactical isolation, and some of the modern trends in the game -- a possession-based approach; for example, of the use of a front three -- appear to have caught it off balance.

So who is likely to challenge the notion of Brazilian domination? Argentina is the obvious place to start. Amazingly, last year was the first time in six seasons that Argentina managed to qualify two teams for the quarterfinals. And both are back this time.

Boca Juniors, beaten finalists in 2012, are something of an unknown quantity with the return to coaching of former legend Carlos Bianchi -- and, at the end of a high summer soap opera, the comeback after seven months out of the game of talismanic playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme.

Velez Sarsfield look more solid, especially after the coup of signing international midfielder Fernando Gago on loan from Valencia. And Newell's Old Boys, under club legend and former Paraguay boss Gerardo Martino, may prove a tough nut to crack, as might Libertad, one of Martino's former clubs in Paraguay.

In their 11th consecutive campaign, and quarterfinalists in each of the last three years, Libertad have high hopes -- as do their talented compatriots Cerro Porteno, desperate to land their first international title. Millonarios of Colombia look interesting, as do the Ecuadorian pair of Guayaquil neighbours Barcelona and Emelec.

Sporting Cristal are the most attractive side to come out of Peru in a while, and Nacional of Uruguay have an intriguing blend of veterans and promising youngsters. Universidad de Chile will not find it easy to replace coach Jorge Sampaoli, who has taken charge of the Chilean national team. But, semifinalists in 2010 and 2012, 'La U' have been drawn in one of the easier groups and have a chance to find their form and grow during the course of the competition.

This is one of the delights of the Copa Libertadores -- there is always the possibility of surprise. Contenders can suddenly appear as if from nowhere -- like the Colombian side Cucuta, competition debutants in 2007. They caused something of a shock by making it out of the group stage, and then found a few extra gears.

For the next few weeks they were the most sparkling side on the continent and were unfortunate not to reach the final -- before slumping back to mediocrity in the Colombian championship. Another Cucuta is always a possibility, but the smart money is on a fourth consecutive Brazilian victory.

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