Copa Libertadores knockout round features Brazilian, Argentine powers
Fifteen teams fell in the qualifying rounds of the Copa Libertadores, South America's premier club competition. Another 16 failed to make it out of the group phase -- leaving 16 teams, including 11 former champions, to do battle in the knockout rounds.
All the representatives from five countries -- Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela -- have been eliminated. A pair of teams from Ecuador are the only remaining contestants from the north of the continent, in a field dominated by Brazil and Argentina (with six and four teams respectively), and also featuring three from Paraguay and one from Uruguay.
All clubs now know who they'll be facing. The draw took place on Monday night in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay -- and going into the ceremony, almost all eyes were on the possibility of a Boca Juniors-River Plate pairing. Carlos Tevez's late goal secured a win over Athletico Paranaense in last week's final group stage, winning the group for the Buenos Aires team. Since in this next round the eight group-winners match up against the eight runners-up, it opened up the possibility of a repeat of last year's final, and another dose of one of the world's most passionate rivalries.
In Monday afternoon's rehearsal ahead of the actual draw, that is the game that came out -- as did a clash between the Porto Alegre rivals Gremio and Internacional, who contest the match widely seen as Brazil's fiercest derby. But would that outcome be repeated at the real deal? We did not have to wait long to find out.
Reigning champions River Plate were the first name drawn -- and their opponents were not Boca. Instead they face Cruzeiro, the first of of three Argentina vs. Brazil clashes that were sorted. Boca again face Athletico Paranaense -- the very side that they beat as a result of that late Tevez goal. A month earlier in Brazil, Athletico had won a resounding 3-0 victory. Both of these ties are clashes of the giants -- Athletico have proved themselves worthy of such status in recent times, and are the reigning champions of the Copa Sudamericana. Palmeiras of Brazil, statistically the best team in the group phase, will be strong favourites against Godoy Cruz.
The path to the final -- a one-off match in Santiago on November 23rd -- has been mapped out. There is the chance of a Boca vs. River in the semifinals. Both are in the top half of the draw. And in the bottom half -- featuring four Brazilian sides -- there could be a Gremio vs. Internacional (Gre-Nal, to those in the know) in the semis.
Predictions at this stage are necessarily vague. These games will not take place until after the Copa America, which comes to an end on July 7th. By then, much could have changed. New players will have been signed, while others will have moved on. In the turbulent world of South American club football, some coaches could have lost their jobs, with fresh ones brought in to replace them.
But it would seem fair to assume that Brazil and Argentina will dominate. This has been the clear pattern since the current, all year round format was introduced in 2017. Before the action was squeezed into the first six months. The extended competition has clearly benefited the clubs with deeper pockets, better able to re-enforce their squads through the course of the campaign. Between now and July, though, the three Paraguayans, two Ecuadorians and lone Uruguayan side can keep dreaming and plotting ways to break the monopoly of the big two.
TOP HALF OF THE DRAW
River Plate (ARG) vs. Cruzeiro (BRA)
San Lorenzo (ARG) vs. Cerro Porteno (PAR)
LDU (ECU) vs. Olimpia (PAR)
Athletico PR (BRA) vs. Boca Juniors (ARG)
BOTTOM HALF OF THE DRAW
Emelec (ECU) vs. Flamengo (BRA)
Nacional (URU) vs. Internacional (BRA)
Godoy Cruz (ARG) vs. Palmeiras (BRA)
Gremio (BRA) vs. Libertad (PAR)