The group phase of the Copa Libertadores has reached the half-way stage, with all 32 teams in South America’s biggest club competition having played three opponents each. The traditional powerhouses are looking strong as ever, but there is still much to play for as upstart sides hope to reach the last-16, or at least move to the second-tier Copa Sudamericana. Here are some early findings:
Brazilians bossing it again
Last year’s competition belonged to Brazil’s big three — champions Palmeiras and runners-up Flamengo, along with Atletico Mineiro (eliminated in the semifinals). The three sides played a combined total of 38 games in the competition, losing just two — Flamengo in the final, and a meaningless group game where Palmeiras fielded an understrength side.
Palmeiras have not been at full strength in any of their matches this year, remaining players to deal with an over-demanding calendar. And yet their record reads as follows — three wins, 15 goals for, just two against. True, they have been drawn in one of the weakest groups, but so far they are making it look ridiculously easy. Flamengo, meanwhile, are still finding their way under new Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa. They are not looking entirely convincing, alternating flashes of attacking brilliance with moments of vulnerability. But they, too, are 100%, despite playing two of their matches away from home.
Atletico Mineiro are in one of the toughest groups, and have also been on their travels for two of their games. Their opening round win has been followed by two draws. Next week they face a highly charged local derby against America Mineiro, playing their debut campaign. Defeat would wash them under pressure, but for the moment they are clear favorites to make it through to the knock out phase — and along with Palmeiras and Flamengo they form the top shelf in this year’s competition.
The other five Brazilian sides have looked nowhere near as strong, combining five wins and seven defeats. Corinthians have been the best of them so far and will have high hopes — and although Athletico Paranaense are struggling, they will trust in their experience of big knockout games to make it out of the group and then go about some giant killing.
Can River, Boca challenge this time?
Apart from Palmeiras and Flamengo, the only other team with a 100% record is Argentina’s River Plate, who have also played two of their three matches on the road. River, of course, were the last team to win the trophy before the Brazilian domination. Since that 2018 triumph they have been eliminated by opponents from Brazil at an ever earlier stage in the competition. Coach Marcelo Gallardo was seduced into continuing his marathon spell in charge by the investments made in the team, and on their day they can be the most attractive side oin the continent.
But there are two problems. One is the imminent loss to Manchester City of the jewel in the crown, striker Julian Alvarez. The other is that the defense still looks vulnerable. Although River kept a clean sheet at home to Fortaleza, they did not find it easy coping with firepower much lighter than Brazil’s big three — River’s conquerors in the last three years — can throw at them. This question — can anyone defend against the big Brazilians — promises to be one of the key topics of this year’s competition.
On the other hand, River Plate’s bitter rivals Boca Juniors are struggling. They are suffering from the loss through suspension of perhaps their two best players — defender Marcos Rojo and Colombian winger Sebastian Villa, the latter for the entire group phase. Theirs is a tough group, and Boca are currently on the bottom. It will not be easy to dig themselves out. But if they can get through, it would be unwise to write them off.
Of the other Argentina squads, Estudiantes might hope to come up with an answer. Under wily and pragmatic coach Ricardo Zielinski, they are tough, well drilled and with occasional flashes of talent, have made an impressive start.
The Paraguayan sides are putting in a typically solid performance, their three representatives accumulating four wins and just a single defeat. Both Libertad and Cerro Porteno top their groups at the halfway stage. It is hard, though, to imagine them going all the way. Well coached by Gustavo Quinteros, Colo Colo of Chile have exceeded expectations, and the Colombian pair of Tolima and Deportivo Cali have also given themselves a chance of making the last sixteen, which would serve as a much needed boost for their country’s football.
Ecuador has consistently punched above its weight in recent years. Indeed, since the change of format in 2017, it is the only country to break the Brazil-Argentina stranglehold and get a team through to the semi finals. But that looks very unlikely this year. Emelec have been very disappointing, and Independiente del Valle have run into the problem of a selling club. In the last few years they have unearthed some wonderful talent — and won the Copa Sudamericana in 2019 plus the domestic league last year. It put the young stars in the shop window, and they have all been sold. There is country an interregnum, with the next crop not yet ready to come through. This year’s side has more experience than promised, and is less interesting as a result.
Smaller sides have tough roads
The three Bolivian sides have managed just a single win from nine games. And there has only been one Venezuelan win — though there is some good news. Deportivo Tachira are in with a chance of making it out of their group, Caracas have not been disgraced, and there has been more evidence of good youth development work taking place in the country.
There is little cheer, though, for Peru. Both Alianza Lima and Sporting Cristal have lost all their matches. No other country even comes close to this futile record. Neither have been humiliated. They have suffered a sequence of narrow defeats. But it fits into a depressing pattern. Current domestic champions Alianza Lima have now gone 25 Libertadores games without a win — and were beaten in all but four of those matches.
These figures make the achievement of national team coach Ricardo Gareca all the more remarkable. Domestic Peruvian football is in a bad way, but the national squad made it to the 2018 World Cup and are a play-off away from going to Qatar in November.