It is, of course, not possible to win the Copa Libertadores in the group phase. But it is possible to lose it. Corinthians of Sao Paulo, the biggest club from the biggest city in South America, are the major casualty of the group phase, which came to an end on Thursday.
So poor was their performance that they had no chance of making the knockout stage even before they had played their final group game — where they beat Liverpool of Uruguay amid a climate of protest, with the stadium full of banners complaining against the team and many supporters wearing red clown noses to express their displeasure.
If the early fall of Corinthians was something of a surprise, the same cannot be said for the three countries who bow out of the competition. For Chile this is the fourth time in five years that they have failed to qualify a team for the last 16. For Venezuela this was the seventh consecutive washout, and for Peru it was the 10th.
Seven nations are still represented, but as expected the pattern of recent years was repeated and the field is strongly tipped towards Brazil and Argentina, with the continent’s big two biggest leagues providing 10 of the final 16 teams.
Brazil have then gone on to dominate the closing stages, providing both finalists in each of the past three years. The business end of the Libertadores is running the risk of turning into a duplicate of the Brazilian Cup, especially as the big hitters are back once more. Reigning champions Flamengo and Palmeiras have shared the past four Libertadores titles, and, in contrasting styles, are the teams to beat once more.
Under recently appointed Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli, Flamengo are hit and miss, enveloping the opposition in a vice-like grip in one game and then losing control in the next. Their collection of attacking talent will always make them a potent threat. Under Portuguese boss Abel Ferreira, Palmeiras are more pragmatic and consistent.
These are the two sides that everyone else will want to avoid in Tuesday’s draw for the second-round matches, which kick off early in August.
By then Fluminense will hope to have recaptured their exhilarating early season form. Fernando Diniz has developed a delightfully free flowing, even anarchic team, wonderful on their day — but those days have been a little more rare of late, and after sprinting off the blocks with three victories Fluminense ended up making hard work of making sure of their place in the last 16.
Atletico Mineiro had to struggle all the way through to the line, but may take some stopping now that they have made the cut. Beaten finalists last year, Athletico Paranaense qualified in relative ease and look dangerous, and Internacional were one of only two teams who remained unbeaten throughout the group phase, though some of that might have something to do with the quality of their opposition.
The burning question, then, is whether the Brazilian domination can be interrupted. The most likely candidates to do so would seem to be River Plate, who dug themselves out of a hole after getting into early problems. Martin Demichelis has made a fascinating start to his coaching career, and when on song his side can really make the ball fizz.
But the goals-against column makes alarming reading. River conceded 11 times in the six group games — more than any other survivor (and more than over half of the eliminated teams). The defenders are struggling individually, and are being left exposed by the team’s front-loaded approach. It will be fascinating to see whether Demichelis attempts to rebalance the side, of if he deceived to double down on a method of playing that has taken his side to the top of the Argentine league.
Boca Juniors, meanwhile, qualified in comfort and only conceded twice. But they were very lucky with the draw. Future opponents will be much tougher than anything they have faced so far and, at the moment, it is hard to imagine them having the quality to go all the way.
And the same probably applies to the other two Argentine teams. Gabriel Milito’s Argentinos Juniors are well coached, and Fernando Gago is doing a similarly impressive job at Racing. Argentinos were too much for Corinthians, and Racing topped their group ahead of Flamengo, so there are grounds for hope. But everything is going to have to go their way if they can put in a serious challenge.
The rest of the continent is represented by six teams from five different countries. No one will relish being drawn against Bolivar and having to climb the Andes to the extreme altitude of La Paz in Bolivia. The team have also shown they can compete at sea level — their remarkable 4-0 win away to Cerro Porteno of Paraguay was one of the stand out results of the entire group phase.
Cerro’s great local rivals Olimpia are veteran cup specialists and came through the group phase emphatically, unbeaten and scoring fewer goals than only Palmeiras. They could be interesting underdogs — as are Ecuador’s extraordinary Independiente del Valle, reigning champions of the Copa Sudamericana.
This little club have gained a justifiable reputation for the excellence of their youth development work. Their ability to play the market is less glamorous, but equally important. They are continually transferring the youngsters they develop. To stay competitive, they need to bring in experienced players at a relatively low cost, and they have a keen eye for signings who can slot in and help their cause. And the altitude of Quito also works to their advantage.
Once continental powerhouses, it has been some time since Nacional of Uruguay have launched a serious challenge. There is no lack of enthusiasm, but probably not enough quality to take them all the way.
With two teams through to the last 16, Colombia enjoyed its best group phase since 2015. Deportivo Pereira, though, have surely already exceeded expectations. But 2016 champions Atletico Nacional, the last team to interrupt the Brazil-Argentina domination, might be aiming higher. Morale in the camp is low at the moment. Losing the domestic title on a penalty shootout has given rise to internal strains, and Brazilian coach Paulo Autuori could be on his way out. They now have over a month to rethink and regroup before things kick off once more.
Copa Libertadores faves are Boca Juniors, Flamengo, Palmeiras