Upsets and unpredictability: The Copa Libertadores is back
Across South America (and Mexico), excitement is in the air. The continent is bracing itself for what could prove to be one of the most unpredictable years in the history of a famously unpredictable competition. This week sees the start of the group stage of the 51st Copa Libertadores, and though the Brazilian challenge is impressive, the traditionally smaller teams could well prove to be protagonists this year. It's as open a field as ever...
First, let's deal with two notable absentees. I wrote back in September for Soccernet that Argentina's two biggest clubs are going through rough patches at present. Neither have qualified for the Copa. Boca Juniors are the second most successful side in the competition's history, having won it six times (one behind countrymen Independiente). River Plate, despite only having lifted the trophy twice, have won more matches at the tournament than any other participants.
The poor domestic performances of the two giants, though, have left the door open for less experienced Argentine sides to have a go. 2009's two domestic champions, Vélez Sársfield and Banfield, are joined by Lanús and defending continental champions Estudiantes in the group stages - Colón and Newell's Old Boys having fallen in the qualifiers.
Brazil offers more familiar names. Copa do Brasil winners Corinthians of course include the original Ronaldo, and a couple of friends - former Arsenal midfielder Edu has been talked into a return to his first club, whilst Roberto Carlos - he of the one decent free kick in a long career of taking them - joins him from Fenerbahçe. The country's most widely-supported club, 2009 champions Flamengo, have an attack spearheaded by Adriano, who is joined by Vágner Love and one-time Manchester United midfielder Kléberson.
South Americans have always tended to return home in the twilight of their careers (if not a little sooner), and the economic strength of Corinthians' backers MSI is well known abroad thanks to Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano's arrival in the English Premier League. At the same time, though, a generation who had great exposure at European clubs and in the World Cups of France '98 and Japan & South Korea 2002 are reaching that stage of their careers. As a result, Brazilian clubs must be the favourites. Qualifying didn't give any indication to the contrary, with Cruzeiro smashing Bolivia's Real Potosí 7-0 in Belo Horizonte.
That said, things often don't go to form in the Copa Libertadores. Just ask Mexican side Estudiantes Tecos (not to be confused with defending champions Estudiantes de La Plata of Argentina). From a league that is economically strong by world, not merely Latin American, standards, and with an ambitious rebranding project already underway, they were heavy favourites in the qualifying round against Juan Aurich. The Peruvians were barely household names in their own country, and no Peruvian club had ever won on Mexican soil before, but with a 2-1 win in Guadalajara, Juan Aurich qualified at Tecos' expense.
A year ago, Peru were almost kicked out of the Copa after a FIFA row over government interference in the running of the Peruvian Football Federation. The national team finished bottom of the South American World Cup qualifiers with a miserable 11 goals scored from 18 matches. Whilst Ecuadorian football - most notably Liga de Quito, Copa Libertadores winners in 2008 and Copa Sudamericana winners in December just gone - continues to improve rapidly, their southern neighbours aren't keeping pace.
It's understandable, then, that the reaction from Peruvian publications like Libero was highly excitable the morning after qualification was secured. Juan Aurich aren't from Lima - they play in Chiclayo, near the Peruvian border some 260 miles from the capital. For one of the country's big clubs to have pulled off such a result would have been a story, for a provincial club to create history in such a manner is something else. One fillip for the Peruvian game has been followed by another this week, as Alianza Lima opened their campaign in the group stage on Wednesday night with a 3-1 away win over Bolivian side Bolívar - Alianza's first win in La Paz for 32 years.
Whilst Alianza's result and Juan Aurich's very presence in the tournament provide light at the end of the tunnel for Peruvian football, one of the sometimes endearing, sometimes enraging peculiarities of the Copa is that it might not last long. CONMEBOL, you see, don't like to leave their group stage draw until the qualifiers are known. That's manifested by the fact that two qualifying round ties were still being played this week, even whilst the group stage got underway. The subsequent impossibility of keeping apart clubs from the same countries means both Alianza and Juan Aurich are in Group 3, along with the defending champions, Seba Verón's Estudiantes.
Another symptom is that, following the row over Mexican participation caused by last year's swine flu epidemic which led to Chivas and San Luís Potosí withdrawing in the last 16, those two clubs have been given a bye (in addition to Mexico's normal qualification spots) to that same round this year. This means that only the eight group winners plus six best runners-up will qualify for the next round. Groups with two seemingly obvious qualifiers become potential groups of death.
There will be upsets aplenty, and with Chivas and San Luis harbouring grievances they'll be dangerous opponents coming late into the fray. Brazil's big names will face Argentines with a point to prove over more renowned domestic opponents, whilst Peru's sides - just happy to be there - might feel the pressure is off. Each of the remaining nations (with the exception, surely, of Bolivia) will provide strong outside challenges, from Uruguay's Nacional (semi-finalists last year) to Paraguay's Libertad and Colombia's Once Caldas.
And looming large over all of it: the World Cup. The Copa Libertadores will take a break after the quarter-finals, to recommence after the South African jamboree. This is South American football organisation. It rarely makes sense, but it ought to produce one hell of a competition.