Atletico Mineiro, Godoy Cruz crash out; Copa Libertadores left wide open
Teams from Brazil and Argentina accounted for 10 of the remaining 16 in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. Wednesday night's action, however, determined that this year cannot end in an all-Brazilian or an all-Argentine final.
The possibility of a decider between two teams from Brazil ended with the shocking elimination of Atletico Mineiro by Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia.
From the town of Cochabamba, Wilstermann's owe part of their success this year to their play at home, where unacclimated opponents have a difficult time competing at 2,500 metres above sea level. In the group phase, Wilstermann lost all three of their away matches -- and so when, in last month's first leg, they beat Atletico by just a single goal, it looked like an insufficient margin to take to Belo Horizonte.
But an Atletico attack spearheaded by World Cup centre forward Fred, with Ecuadorian playmaker Juan Cazares, veteran Robinho and Venezuelan international Romulo Otero coming off the bench, were unable to score a single goal. Wilstermann stood firm against a barrage of crosses, ran the clock down and held on for a historic goalless draw. The last time Wilstermann made the semifinals was in 1981, when the tournament had a vastly different format (21 teams, with six going through to the semifinal stage).
Making the last eight of this year's Libertadores must rank as the greatest achievement in the club's history. It is also a huge disappointment for Atletico and their expensive squad. The last Brazilian club to win the competition (in 2013), Atletico were also the only team in that half of the draw. So, as they fell, so did any chance of two Brazilian teams meeting in the final.
Also out of the competition are reigning Brazilian champions Palmeiras, with a squad that was even more expensive than Atletico. They lost on penalties to Barcelona of Ecuador, and, on the balance of the two games, they got what they deserved.
They went down 1-0 in Guayaquil last month in a match where they hardly bothered to cross the half way line. It was a dangerous strategy against opponents who are so proficient on the counter attack. A single Barcelona goal in Sao Paulo would leave Palmeiras needing three.
There was little sign of a goal for either side in a first half that was all heat and no light. Palmeiras improved after the break with the introduction of Moises, a central midfielder who brought calm and quality to their passing. He set up and finished off the game's only goal -- but as space opened up Barcelona posed a threat on the break. No further scoring sent the tie to a shoot out. The packed crowd in the impressive Palmeiras arena did their best to get behind the home side, but Barcelona keeper Maximo Banguera plunged left to save two penalties and send his team into the last eight.
The night's only good news for Brazil, then, was Gremio's earlier qualification against Godoy Cruz -- the only team from Argentina in that half of the draw, thus eliminating the chance of an all-Argentine decider.
Gremio had won 1-0 last month in Mendoza. But Godoy Cruz came out for business, and silenced the Porto Alegre public with an early goal, a fine long range volley from Javier Correa that surprised keeper Marcelo Grohe.
But Gremio -- for now at least -- can count on probably the best player currently active in Brazilian football, support striker Luan, who took charge of the match. So good at finding space between the lines, Luan was at the heart of both of Gremio's goals -- heavily involved in moves on either side of half time which both ended with a close range finish from Pedro Rocha.
The bad news is that this may well have been one of his last appearances in a Gremio shirt, with European clubs closing in. The quarterfinals are more than a month away, and it is unlikely that he will still be based in Brazil by then -- and hard to see how Gremio can replace him.
They will find out the identity of their opponents on Thursday night. Compatriots Botafogo kick off at home already a goal up against Nacional of Uruguay. There is the guarantee of another Brazilian quarterfinalist when Santos take the field with a 3-2 advantage over Atletico Paranaense. And after Lanus and River Plate booked their slots on Tuesday, fellow Argentines San Lorenzo are favourites to join them after beating Emelec of Ecuador 1-0 in the first leg.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.