Copa Libertadores changes see Brazilian, Argentine clubs more dominant than ever
It might be expected that the final week in the group phase of South America's Copa Libertadores would be all thrills and spills, a continent-wide scramble for a place in the knockout phase.
In fact, there is little left to fight about. The penultimate week has sorted out much of the pending business. Of the 16 places available, 11 have already been filled -- 12, barring a mathematical miracle. The final week merely completes the cast.
There is an easy explanation for such a state of affairs: the domination of teams from Brazil and Argentina.
This is not always a given. As recently as two years ago, the final was between Atletico Nacional of Colombia and little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador. Since then, though, the format of the competition has been altered. Where before it was mostly squeezed into the first semester, now it runs throughout the year -- a change which in itself benefits the teams with more financial resources, who are able to reinforce themselves during the course of the campaign. Brazil, particularly, and Argentina have a financial advantage over the rest of the continent. And the two traditional powers have also been handed more slots in the competition.
The consequences are clear. Five Brazilian teams have booked their place in the last 16, and only a disastrous night next week will stop Cruzeiro from joining them. The only Brazilian team to fall at this hurdle has been Vasco da Gama, from whom little was expected. Four Argentine teams are also safely through. And Independiente are strong favourites to make it five. A win at home to Deportivo Lara next week will be good enough to seal their place; in fact, a draw will probably be good enough.
That leaves one other Argentine club struggling to get across the line. In a clash of two former champions, Estudiantes are at home to Nacional of Uruguay and need a two-goal win to get through. There is, then, a certainty of nine of the final 16 coming from Brazil and Argentina, a near certainty of 10, a very strong possibility of 11 and even a chance of 12.
Two more places up for grabs next week will come from the only group that does not contain a single team from either Brazil or Argentina -- which might go some way to explain its competitive balance. Colombia's Atletico Nacional, with nine points, host Chile's Colo Colo, who have seven, while Bolivar of Bolivia, with five points, are at home to Delfin of Ecuador, who also have seven. The Colombians would seem to be in the driving seat, and a win for them will favour Bolivar, who will expect victory in the mountain fortress of La Paz.
It remains, then, to pay tribute to the only country other than Brazil and Argentina to have already qualified teams for the final 16. Yet again, the ever-resilient Paraguayans are punching above their weight. Year after year, the Paraguayans are able to come up with teams that are stronger than the sum of their parts. The record of their two representatives this year is truly impressive. Both Cerro Porteno and Libertad have made it through to the knockout stage, and between them they have accumulated seven wins, two draws and two defeats.
To put this in perspective, in every other country barring Brazil and Argentina, the teams have suffered more losses than they have celebrated victories. The Paraguayan performance is truly remarkable. But even they have suffered from the imbalance. When Cerro Porteno travelled to Brazil to meet reigning champions Gremio, they were beaten 5-0.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.