Argentina's Copa Libertadores teams ready to make their move
Europe's Champions League is not the only continental club competition that kicks up a gear this week. The South American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores, is also back, resuming after a three-week layoff.
The action is at a much earlier stage than on the other side of the Atlantic. While the Champions League has reached the last eight, the Libertadores is still in the first throes of the group stage, with 32 teams dreaming of lifting the trophy. Six of them are from Argentina, and an intriguing question surrounds them as the ball prepares to roll across the continent once more: Will the Argentines be any stronger after the pause?
Five of the country's six representatives were at a clear disadvantage in those two weeks of group-phase action that took place in the first half of last month.
Political and financial problems in Argentine football delayed the start of the domestic league. Scheduled to get underway at the start of February, the actual kickoff date was a month later. This meant that the country's clubs were obliged to go into the Libertadores having played very little or no competitive football since the start of December. It is hardly surprising, then, that they were off the pace early on.
Of the nine games played in the Libertadores so far by the Argentine clubs, two have been won and five lost. Ten countries take part in the competition. Of the other nine, only two have lost more than half their fixtures -- Venezuela and (surprisingly) Colombia.
After this three week pause, though, things might be different. The Argentine clubs have had some time to get themselves not just fit, but match-fit. By now, they should be on a level playing field.
For 2014 champions San Lorenzo, this is especially good news. Their position is desperate, having collected no points from their first two matches. The opener, away to Flamengo of Brazil, was a clear example of the problems the country's teams have faced. For the first half in the Maracana stadium, the visitors held their own. But as soon as they went behind, the result was not in doubt. San Lorenzo lacked the legs to chase the game and were routed 4-0. After losing a second match, they badly need to get some points on the board in Wednesday's visit to Universidad Catolica of Chile.
Estudiantes have also yet to pick up a point, though they have played only one game -- a late goal meant they were beaten on their trip to Brazil to face Botafogo. They will hope to have more gas in the tank for Tuesday's home game against the dangerous Barcelona of Ecuador, who have enough pace on the counter-attack to make life hard for Estudiantes if they are not yet firing on all cylinders.
Earlier the same night, Godoy Cruz will be looking for their first win away to Libertad of Paraguay. And Atletico Tucuman, with just one point from two games, face an awkward trip to Bolivia to face Jorge Wilstermann.
Unlike the others, Tucuman cannot complain about a lack of match practice. They were obliged to fight their way through two qualifying rounds to make it through to the group phase. The late start to the domestic league, then, is not an excuse in their case. They had plenty of high-pressure, competitive action under their belt when the group phase kicked off. But, for a provincial club in their debut campaign, they have already surpassed expectations.
The strongest Argentine challenge in this year's competition always looked likely to come from River Plate and Lanus, the two clubs from the country who have already registered a victory. Lanus do not play again until next week. So far, they have one defeat and one win--- the latter away to Chapecoense, debutants rebuilding from the tragic air disaster and almost certainly the weakest of the Brazilian contingent. With their group perfectly balanced, the layoff should have worked in their favour.
River Plate will consider themselves clear favourites this Thursday when they are at home to Melgar of Peru. River were the first Argentine winners in the group phase, and their 3-1 victory away to Medellin of Colombia is one of the standout results of the opening fixtures. Three more points this week would put them well on the way to qualification for the knockout stage and establish River Plate as potential challengers to the Brazilian giants for the 2017 trophy.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.