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 By Tim Vickery

Independiente del Valle, Cerro Porteno seek Copa Libertadores surprises

Independiente del Valle celebrating
Independiente del Valle will be looking to take down 2015 champions River Plate in the Copa Libertadores round of 16.

Independiente del Valle are a tiny Ecuadorean team from the outskirts of Quito, the capital city. Their stadium holds little more than 7,000 people, and the club have gone through most of their six decades in considerable obscurity.

In the last few years, though, they have made dramatic strides -- all with a model of administration based on finding and grooming young talent. Jefferson Montero, the winger now at Swansea City, is probably their most famous graduate.

The club are now starting to make their mark on the Copa Libertadores. They made their debut in the competition in 2014 and nearly made it out of the group phase. Last year they fell in the qualifying round. This time, though, this plucky little club have got themselves into the best 16 on the continent. And based on what has happened so far in the competition, they need not have much of an inferiority complex when they take on one of South America's undisputed giants, reigning champions River Plate of Argentina -- especially because the first leg takes place on their home ground, some 2,800 metres above sea level. River will not find it easy adjusting to the altitude, where the air is thinner and the ball travels quicker.

This is part of the charm of South America's equivalent of the Champions League. The travel and the conditions can often be a challenge for the visiting team. And there is the fact that even the best sides are continually selling their best players, leaving them in a permanent phase of transition. Under such circumstances the action comes loaded with a certain unpredictability. A team like Independiente del Valle can dream of causing an upset against the mighty River Plate and making it through to the quarterfinals.

River, of course, remain strong favourites -- as are their great local rivals Boca Juniors in their tie against Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. Unlike Independiente del Valle, Cerro have a long tradition in the competition: this is the 38th year in which they are taking part. But they have never won the title, unlike their own local rivals Olimpia, who have three triumphs to their name.

The lack of an international title is a massive psychological weak point for Paraguay's most popular club. Last week they had a crisis of nerves before booking their place in the last 16. First they sacked coach Cesar Farias, hurriedly replacing him with Gustavo Morinigo, a promising young figure who took little Nacional all the way to the final of the competition two years ago. If he could get that far with Nacional, went the thinking, surely he could go even further with Cerro Porteno.

His new team had to beat Santa Fe of Colombia. They were a goal up, the Colombians had two men sent off -- but still Cerro's fans were left biting their nails before the final whistle blew.

The difference this time is that Morinigo has now had a few more days to get his feet wet and also that Cerro Porteno will be the underdogs in this clash, which might ease their nerves a little. Cerro are at home in the first leg of what could be another intriguing tie, especially as Boca have lost key midfielder Fernando Gago to a long-term injury.

And there is another "tradition versus the moment" clash in the last tie of the week. Toluca of Mexico, taking part for the third time, have never made an impression on the Libertadores. Sao Paulo of Brazil have lifted the trophy three times. Toluca breezed through the group phase, while Sao Paulo sweated all the way to the last minute. But can they raise their game now that the knockout stage has arrived?

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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