Breaking the Argentina-Brazil stranglehold on the Copa Libertadores
There was a time when people could talk of a big three in the Copa Libertadores -- but Uruguay have slipped off the podium. Between them, the Montevideo giants Penarol and Nacional have 8 titles, but the last was in 1988 -- only once since then has a Uruguayan side reached the final. In a globalised world, it is very hard for Uruguayan clubs to compete when the population of the country is little more than 3 million.
Which leaves, then, a big two: Argentina and Brazil. The two leading footballing countries in South America share 40 of the 55 Libertadores titles. The only time in the last decade they have been denied is when Ecuador's LDU pulled off a shock win in 2008. The knockout phase gets underway in this year's competition with Brazil and Argentina accounting for 9 of the 16 teams.
The smart money, then, is on another triumph for one of the big two. But where might the threat come from? If the 2015 title eludes Argentina and Brazil, where might it go?
Modest Guarani can point to recent history to bolster their claim. In both previous years Paraguayan sides battled their way through to the final -- Nacional last year and Olimpia, who only lost on penalties, in 2013. Guarani are not noticeably worse than either of those sides. But they will have to scale Everest the hard way after drawing Brazilian giants Corinthians in the next round.
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The Colombia pair, Santa Fe and Atletico Nacional both looked impressive in winning their respective group, and have an outsider's chance. But the most interesting challenge might end up coming from Mexico.
Invited to take part in the Libertadores since the late 1990s, Mexican clubs have twice come close to taking the title north. Cruz Azul only lost out on penalties in 2001, and Chivas Guadalajara reached the final nine years later. Perhaps more should have been expected. After all, the Mexican clubs have plenty of financial firepower, and are able to raid South America for talented players.
Tigres, for example, can count on current second choice Argentina national team goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman; on Egidio Arevalo Rios, the veteran holding midfielder who is one of the corner stones of the Uruguay national side; on talented Argentine midfielder Guido Pizarro and his veteran compatriot Damian Alvarez. They can also count on a strike force that has been one of the stand outs of this year's competition -- Brazil's Rafael Sobis, no longer so fleet of foot but clever and an excellent striker of the ball, and the explosive pace and power of Ecuador's Joffre Guerron. With four wins and two draws, they qualified for the knock out stage with the second best record in the field.
It is now, though, that they run into a problem. The structure of the Mexican league makes no concessions to teams wanting to mount a challenge in the Libertadores. The regular stage of the domestic season is coming to a close, and it will be closely followed by the playoffs. Until the end of May, for as long as Tigres are still in the hunt, the big knockout domestic games will be coming thick and fast.
Add in the next two rounds of the Libertadores, and the club will be caught up in a fixture pile up which has damaged the chances of Mexican clubs in previous years.
CONMEBOL, the South American Federation, have done what they can. All the other second round ties in the Libertadores kick off next week. Tigres, meanwhile, are in action this Tuesday, with the second leg a week later. Its second round games will have been completed before the knockout phase of the Mexican league gets underway.
Fortunately, Tigres' opponents hardly look too daunting. Universitario of Bolivia have done remarkably well to qualify from the group phase in only their second Libertadores campaign. But the goals for tally -- just four scored in six games -- shows the team's limitations. The altitude of Sucre, their home town, will not be much of an inconvenience to the Mexicans as it has been to other teams in Tuesday's first leg.
Tigres, then, are red hot favourites to make it through to the quarterfinals, where they will meet the winners of the clash between Colombia's Atletico Nacional and Emelec of Ecuador. The Colombians, who have made pleasing progress during the campaign, will be narrow favourites to get through. But then they are likely to face exactly the same problem as Tigres; with the Colombian league also using a variation on the playoff system, they will be caught up in a draining fixture pile up.
Whoever makes it through that confrontation is likely to provide the biggest threat to the continued Argentina-Brazil domination. The good news is that after the quarterfinals they can have a long rest. The competition pauses while the national teams dispute the Copa America. Come the middle of July, when the semifinals kick off, there will be no fixture pile up and nothing to distract Tigres (or Atletico Nacional) from the task of winning the Libertadores.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.