RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Sixteen teams moved into the knock out stages of the Copa Libertadores this week, but some of the biggest names in the tournament, including the holders and Intercontinental Cup winners Internacional, will be absent after they fell at the first round in what was a cup competition full of surprises.
Inter beat Sao Paulo in an all-Brazilian final last year and then went on to defeat Barcelona in Tokyo to take FIFA's World Club Championship. Yet this year they won only three games in a group containing Velez Sarsfield, Emelec (Ecuador) and Nacional (Uruguay) and were unceremoniously dumped from the tournament, the first defending champion ever to go out at the group stage.
Early losses away to their closest rivals meant Inter needed to beat Nacional by at least three goals in their final tie in Porto Alegre. But although they dominated the match the Gauchos could only score one and Nacional sneaked into the next round on goal difference alongside Group 4 winners Velez Sarsfield.
Velez were one of only two Argentine sides to reach the last 16. The only other team to join them being Boca Juniors, who will be their opponents in the home and away legs played between May 2 and 10. Boca Juniors made heavy weather of Group 7 and only secured qualification with a 7-0 hammering of Bolivian side Bolivar in their last game. They went through along with Toluca from Mexico, who saw off Peruvians Cienciano.
Boca's joy at qualifying was compounded by the dismal performance of their arch rivals River Plate. River finished a humiliating last place in a Group 6 that saw Colo Colo and Caracas FC progress to the last 16.
River became the first Argentine side ever to lose a Libertadores tie at home to a Venezuelan club when they went down 1-0 to Caracas FC at the Monumental in March. That defeat was the first time River had lost to a Venezuelan side in 15 games and condemned Daniel Passarella's side to an early exit. A 3-1 defeat in Caracas four weeks later just added insult to injury.
The last gasp misery seemed to be never ending for the Argentine teams. Gimnasio y Esgrima narrowly lost out to Defensor Sporting on goal difference, their 3-0 win away against the Uruguayans in the final match of Group 8 was one goal short of the total they needed to go through on goal difference.
Banfield also fell at the last hurdle. The team from suburban Buenos Aires needed to beat Paraguayan side Libertad in their final match to qualify for the knock-out stage for the second time in two years.
But a free kick from Colombian Vladimir Marin was enough to give the visitors the three points and take them through from Group 1 along with America of Mexico, who secured their place in what was a tight three-way struggle with a 2-1 win over Ecuadoran stragglers El Nacional.
America were the team to watch in the qualifiers, their six games bringing 22 goals. They scored 12 and finished joint highest scorers, alongside Santos, Colo Colo and Cienciano.
The last two Libertadores finals have been all-Brazilian affairs and if the first round is anything to go by. then they will be the teams to beat again this year. Two of them, Santos and Flamengo, are the only unbeaten clubs still in the competition and Santos especially must fancy their chances of taking the title for the first time since Pele lifted the cup in 1963.
Coached by former Real Madrid and Brazil manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Santos were the only team to win all their games in walking Group 8 ahead of Defensor Sporting, Gimnasia y Esgrima and Deportivo Pasto (Colombia). Santos conceded just one goal on their way to a last 16 tie against Caracas FC and became the first team since compatriots Vasco da Gama in 2001 to win all their first round games.
Brazilian sides also excelled in Group 5, where Flamengo and Parana both qualified for the next round. Flamengo won five and drew one of their games and finished top of what was widely known to be the weakest of the eight groups. Parana, competing in the tournament for the first time, finished second, ahead of Bolivians Bamin Real Potosi and Venezuelans UA Maracaibo. Flamengo will meet Defensor Sporting in the next round and Parana will face Libertad.
Sao Paulo were also in the draw for the last 16, although only after a fright. Muricy Ramalho's side are unquestionably the team of the decade in Brazil but they have not started the year well and they struggled to qualify on goal difference in Group 2.
Last year's finalists and winners in 2005, they drew their final game with Chilean's Audax Italiano to scrape through behind Mexican side Necaxa.
Their reward is an all-Brazilian tie with Gremio, who topped the tightest group, Group 3, by winning three matches 1-0 and drawing another 0-0. The 1983 and 1995 Libertadores champions were in third place on the eve of the final match but won through with a 1-0 defeat of Paraguayans Cerro Porteño. They are joined by Colombian team Cúcuta Deportivo, whose 4-3 away win at Deportivo Tolima lifted them from bottom place in the group and into the knock out stage for the first time in their history.
THOSE TIES IN FULL
Caracas FC vs. Santos FC
CF América vs. Colo Colo
Defensor Sporting vs. Flamengo
São Paulo FC vs. Grêmio
Boca Juniors vs. Vélez Sarsfield
Paraná vs. Libertad
Nacional vs. Necaxa
Cúcuta Deportivo vs. CD Toluca