Copa Libertadores group stage opens with surprises, struggles and star turns
Tim Vickery checks in with three thoughts from the first week of group-stage matches in the Copa Libertadores.
1. A curious week for Brazil
These days the Brazilian clubs have a significant financial advantage over their continental competitors. This has rarely made itself felt on the pitch in the last few years -- and it was hard to spot in the opening week's action. Until Palmeiras took the field on Thursday night, five Brazilian clubs had played without registering a single victory.
True, there were some reasonable performances. Defending champions Gremio were by no means disgraced in their 1-1 draw away to Defensor of Uruguay, and Corinthians were relatively pleased with their goalless draw in Colombia against Millonarios. At the altitude of Cuzco, Santos were on the end of a well deserved 2-0 defeat to Peru's Real Garcilaso, and in a game played behind closed doors, Flamengo were held 2-2 at home to Argentina's River Plate.
It looked as if Palmeiras had the toughest task of the lot - away to Junior of Colombia, a side with depth and quality, in rhythm after coming through two qualifying rounds, conceding two goals in four games.
Junior looked very dangerous in the opening exhanges. But before the game reached the 10 minute mark, they had left-back Gutierrez sent off for a wild tackle, and the complexion of the game changed.
The most admirable aspect of Palmeiras' display was their maturity, taking the heat out of the game and refusing to give the referee the chance to even things up with the award of another red card. They bided their time, and were rewarded with a 3-0 victory -- a sensational result and Brazil's only win of the week -- from what, on paper, looked to be the most difficult game.
2. Libertadores always full of surprises
If Brazil's only win came from what might have been thought the most difficult game, Argentina's only defeat came from the match that seemed to be the easiest. Racing and River Plate were up against quality Brazilian opposition, Estudiantes were away to Nacional of Uruguay, and Boca Juniors visited Peruvian champions Alianza Lima. From these tricky fixtures, the Argentine sides accumulated a win and three draws.
Independiente, meanwhile, were away to Deportivo Lara of Venezuela. The setting, the stadium in Barquisimeto built for the 2007 Copa America, is spectacular. The Lara team seemed less so. Venezuelan sides have a dismal record in recent years, and Lara are not seen as one of the strongest. Moreover, Independiente came from two recent matches against reigning continental champions Gremio - and despite having a man sent off in the first half in both games, they managed to hold the Brazilians. But they were unable to hold Lara, going down 1-0 to an early goal - the type of surprise result that gives the Libertadores so much of its charm.
3. Was a new star born?
This tournament has served as a platform to launch many a great career. It happened, for example, with Carlos Tevez in 2003. A decade and a half later, the first night of Libertadores action turned into a showcase for a player who may even end up competing with Tevez for a place in Argentina's World Cup squad.
Lautaro Martinez of Racing has already been giving signs that he is a sleek and classy goalscorer. He has started this year on fire, and national team coach Jorge Sampaoli has been following his progress. Sampaoli was in the stadium on Tuesday night to witness the finest moment so far in the young career of Martinez.
A hat trick in Argentina's domestic league is one thing -- which Martinez has already achieved this year. But to do it in a tight game against top-class opposition, Cruzeiro of Brazil, is on a completely different level. He was the difference between the two sides in Racing's 4-2 triumph, and his confidence and the range of his penalty area repertoire are very exciting.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.