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Apr 23, 2013

Down to business in the Libertadores

As Europe's Champions League reaches the semi-final stage, another continental club championship is getting into its business end this week. We've seen some of the tightest finishes imaginable, continental giants have been eliminated, surprise packages have burst onto the scene - and that's just the group stage. The Copa Libertadores first knockout round begins almost immediately, and includes among other things an all-Brazilian tie, an all-Argentine tie and a replay of last year's final.

It would be wrong to go any further without mentioning Kevin Douglas Beltrán Espada, the 14-year-old fan of Bolivian representatives San José, who was killed by a misfired flare launched from the Corinthians end as the champions began their title defence away in Oruro. A 17-year-old member of Corinthians' torcida handed himself in the next day.

Given the way South America's violent football-related groups work, who knows whether he's actually the one who did it. 'Hooligan' isn't really an adequate translation for the Portuguese torcida organizada or the Spanish barra brava - they're more like mafia gangs whose allegiance is pledged on face value to football clubs, rather than to regions or families.

Under the circumstances, one might have hoped that come the return match at the end of the group stage, back in São Paulo, Kevin might be remembered fittingly. So it was a little disappointing to see Corinthians celebrate their goals full-throatedly (they'd already qualified with something to spare), not to mention the healthy attendance, after the initial order from CONMEBOL, South American football's governing body, that Corinthians play all home matches behind closed doors had been overturned.

Allow fans in they did, though, and Corinthians won their group on goal difference ahead of the main surprise package, Xolos Tijuana of the Mexican borderland. Xolos (named after the chihuahua-like dog that adorns their crest) were only founded in 2007, and yet here they are in the knockout stages of Latin America's most prestigious cup. They lost 3-0 to Corinthians in São Paulo, but by that point had already beaten them at home, as well as demolishing San José 4-0.

The Xolos crowd has been raising eyebrows for the atmosphere it generates even down here among TV viewers in South America, and their next opponents are Palmeiras, who qualified by winning last year's Copa Brasil but are a second division side this year, so no-one would be too surprised by the Mexicans advancing. Champions Corinthians, as group winners, play Boca Juniors in a replay of last year's final.

That one is likely to be no more of a clash of styles than was the final last year: two sides who are solid at the back and rely on the counter. It could, though, be more one-sided than last time around, because Boca have been atrocious this year. They scraped through a not amazingly strong group, but domestically they've won twice in 2013 - once on the first day of the league campaign, and the other against a lower division side in the Copa Argentina. Carlos Bianchi, the Larry David lookalike who is the club's most successful ever manager, has returned for a third spell, but he has inherited a squad which is ageing in key positions and having injury problems in others.

He's also got the conundrum of how to deal with Juan Román Riquelme, who after a ridiculous amount of coming and going last year re-joined the team in February. As ever with his returns to Boca, this has meant that when he's fit he's shoehorned into the team, and when he's not - which is about 95% of the time - they suffer from still not having a clear long-term alternative. What's more, centre back Matías Caruzzo has embarked on a world record attempt to see how many penalties he can give away in one calendar year.

On the face of it, it would be surprising if Boca advanced any further... but this is Boca Juniors, being managed by Carlos Bianchi, in the Copa Libertadores. So inevitably, they'll win every tie on penalties and end up lifting the trophy.

Boca are joined in the knockout stage by three other Argentine sides. Vélez Sarsfield and Newell's Old Boys play each other in this round, and in fact will kick off the knockout stage on Wednesday night. Vélez have struggled to alternate between the Argentine league and the Copa, but they are clearly prioritising the latter, and doing a good job of it having won their group and knocked out Uruguayan giants Peñarol - five-time winners and finalists only two years ago - in the process. Newell's are doing a better job of competing on two fronts, and are currently joint top of the league, having qualified on goal difference ahead of Universidad de Chile in one of the tightest groups.

The tightest of the lot, though, was Group Two. A goal for Libertad with the last kick of the entire group gave Tigre a 5-3 away win in Asunción; had it finished 5-2, we'd have had two teams on nine (Palmeiras and Tigre), two on eight (Libertad and Sporting Cristal), and everyone on a goal difference of zero. That goal condemned Tigre to second place, and last year's Copa Sudamericana finalists have to return to Paraguay to play Olimpia.

Atlético Mineiro have been the most impressive side so far, though. Inspired by Ronaldinho, they'd danced through their group, scoring 16 goals and winning their first five games, before surprisingly falling 2-0 to fellow Brazilians São Paulo, who they play in the next round thanks to the seedings.

The fact that the knockout stages are seeded - the best group winner (Atlético) plays the worst second-placed side, second best plays second worst and so on - means the groups remain lively right to the end, and also means we can see each side's path to glory. It's not everything, though: the top seed wins the trophy so infrequently it's almost seen as bad luck to finish in that spot.

Whether it's a Ronaldinho-inspired run to the trophy or another special from Bianchi's Boca, who won so much a decade ago, it's going to be fun finding out what this year's knockout stage has in store for us.

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