Copa Lib struggling for breakout stars as it hits the halfway stage
The weekend's clasico headlines naturally went to Lionel Messi, given his goals, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that four of the five goals in the Real Madrid-Barcelona game were scored by South Americans (Casemiro and James Rodriguez were on target for Real). Earlier in the day, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez both scored in the Arsenal-Manchester City FA Cup semifinal, with Willian scoring twice for Chelsea against Tottenham in Saturday's other semifinal.
The South American contribution to European club football has long been immense: It's hard to think of what we know as the Champions League getting off to such a good start in the mid-1950s without the astonishing displays of Real Madrid's Argentina-born legend, Alfredo Di Stefano. Back then, though, many of the best South Americans still played at home, but that's emphatically no longer the case. The best all come to Europe, with China and the United States also growing as alternative destinations.
No continent could survive its outstanding talent being gutted in this way. Recent versions of the Club World Cup have laid bare the low standard of contemporary club football in South America, and it's once again been showcased by this year's Copa Libertadores, whose group phase is now at the half-way stage.
The flip side of this lack of quality, however, is the eternal possibility of surprises. Since the best teams are forever selling their best players, no one club stays at the top for long. Only two teams have lost all three of their first matches -- one of them is Atletico Nacional of Colombia, the reigning champions. And only one team has a 100 percent record: River Plate of Argentina, who have played only twice (they've yet to meet Emelec of Ecuador).
All the other 30 teams in the field have played three games, having met all the opponents in the group either home or away, and just eight teams are unbeaten: four from Brazil, two from Argentina, plus Universidad Catolica of Chile and Barcelona of Ecuador. Six are without a win: two Argentine teams and one each from Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.
All of this points to a parity the likes of which is not seen in Europe's Champions League, when at the start of the season it is a relatively easy task to name most of the likely quarterfinalists. Differences between clubs in Europe have also grown. Former giants (like, say, Celtic) have become also-rans on a continental scale, as the money and the talent becomes concentrated among a handful of super-clubs.
This hasn't happened in South America yet, although the financial superiority of Brazil's clubs must surely make its presence felt before long. Given the advantage they have over the rest of the continent, the fact that no Brazilian club has reached the final since 2013 is a tale of extraordinary incompetence.
The early evidence from this year would point toward an end to Brazil's Libertadores drought, but last week evened things up a bit. Most of Brazil's clubs played away from home, and none of them managed a win. Meanwhile the representatives from Argentina, off to such a slow start due to the late start of their domestic league, are beginning to find some form and did not suffer a defeat. But Argentina's clubs are still only breaking even, with seven wins and seven defeats. Brazil has accumulated 12 wins and four defeats; only two other countries (Ecuador and Paraguay) have won more games than they have lost.
In a sense, though, everyone has been losing. So far this year, there has been little emergence of outstanding new talent. The group phase a year ago hinted at good things to come from Gabriel Jesus, then of Palmeiras. Marlos Moreno of Atletico Nacional was nothing short of sensational, tearing opposing defences apart as his club won their first four games and, of course, went on to lift the title.
Neither are still on this side of the Atlantic, as Manchester City snapped up the pair. Gabriel Jesus made such an exciting start in the Premier League before picking up an injury, while Moreno has had a hard time on loan at La Coruna. Plenty of careers have lost momentum as a result of these loan moves, but he has more than enough time to come again.
No players of similar potential have burst through in the opening stages of the 2017 Libertadores. But there is lots of football still to be played in South America's premier club competition. With it, there are plenty of opportunities for someone to make a name for himself on the way to one day scoring a goal in the Spanish clasico.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.