Cruzeiro kickstart the Copa Libertadores

This week the eyes of the eyes not just of Europe but the whole world have been focused on the dramatic confrontation in the European Champions League between the two Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. Meanwhile back in South America, their equivalent tournament, the Copa Libertadores has much more quietly begun to waken up after a deadly quiet first 3 months.

Over the last three days all 8 of the First Knockout Round first leg ties have been played and by this time next week all the Quarter-Finalists will be known. The relative weakness of the South American club champions was exposed last December in the World Club Cup competition, when for the first time ever, the Copa Libertadores champions did not feature in the Final. Inter PA were eliminated at the semi-final stage by the African champions Mazembe, in  a result that sent shock waves of fear, alarm shame and recrimination reverberating throughout the South American continent. There will considerable extra pressure on the 2011 Copa Libertadores Champions to redeem the reputation of their continent with victory in this year’s World Club Cup. Yet not a bookie in the world is likely to have the European representatives, now almost certain to be either Barcelona or Manchester United, as anything other than massive odds on favourites to provide another European triumph.

So who are likely to emerge as the Continent’s standard holders with the unenviable task of stopping either Barcelona or Manchester United from making it an record equalling 5 wins a row for Europe?

When the Copa Libertadores tournament started in January 2011 no less than 8 of the 38 contestants, Santos, Inter and Gremio from Brazil; Penarol and Nacional from Uruguay; and Independiente, Estudiantes and Velez Sarsfield from Argentina were former winners of the World Club Cup. A further 5, Cruzeiro, Argentinos Juniors, Colo Colo, Once Caldas and LDU Quito had been losing finalists. These 13 previous Libertadores winners were joined by two Brazilian giants Corinthians and Fluminense trying to win the South American club crown for the first time.

Velez Sarsfield Argentina's most likely winners in the absence of the Big Two

Amazingly, for the second year in a row neither of the traditional Argentinean giants River Plate and Boca Juniors had managed to qualify for the Copa Libertadores. The nearest European equivalent would be if neither Real Madrid or Barcelona qualified for the Champions League for two consecutive years. Such an occurrence would be absolutely unthinkable, yet so mediocre have both these great Argentinean clubs become recently, that the unthinkable has become a South American reality, not once but twice in consecutive years. A future Letter from South America will examine this phenomenon in greater detail.

The Qualifying Round, designed to reduce the 38 qualifiers to 32 allowing 8 Groups of 4 clubs, produced only one shock, but it was a catastrophic one for Corinthians, of Sao Paulo, the second best supported club on the Continent who had hoped to break their Libertadores duck in what was still their centenary year. To help them achieve this dream, they had brought in the legendary Brazilian full back Roberto Carlos to join their even more legendary icon, Ronaldo (see previous LSA “The Fat Boy done Good”) But the task proved beyond their tired old legs and a first leg draw at home was followed by a convincing 2-0 defeat away to Deportes Tolima of Colombia. Within days a strongly criticised Ronaldo announced his retirement and within a few more days Roberto Carlos was sold off to one of the new mega rich Russian clubs for a wellfunded semiretirement.

Santos with Neymar and Ganso get off to winning start

The Group Stages which took place over February to April provided precious little excitement, and even less good football. Most of the Groups proved entirely predictable and only 3 of the 8 maintained any tension until the end. Two of the more favoured Brazilian clubs Copa Brazil holders Santos and Brazilian champions Fluminense (see previous LSAs on their triumphs) both struggled to impose themselves and it looked at one point near the end that neither might qualify. However Santos under new coach Muricy Ramalho finally found some form and confirmed qualification on the last day, at the expense of previous winners Colo Colo. In Group 8 previous winners LDU Quito and Penarol managed to eliminate Argentinean pair, Independiente and newcomers Godoy Cruz. Independiente, the club with most Libertadores victories, had qualified thanks to the new rule giving a place to the Copa Sudamerica winners but proved a very pale shadow of their previous winning teams and were tamely eliminated. It was only in Group 6 that the last round games saw all 4 clubs in a position to qualify. Fluminense scrapped into the last 16 by going to Argentina and defeating Argentinos Juniors 4-2 but even then they only qualified because Nacional failed to win at home against America of Mexico and paid the price by finishing third.

    So Brazil emerged with the strongest contingent in the last 16, a nap hand of holders Inter PA, Santos, Cruzeiro, Gremio, and Fluminense. Argentina are represented by former holders Estudiantes and Velez Sarsfield. Mexico Paraguay and Colombia also provided two clubs each, America and Jaguares; Cerro Porteno and Libertad: and Once Caldas and Junior Barranquila respectively. Uruguay with Penarol, Chile with Universidad Catolica and Ecuador with LDU completed the last 16 line up. All the smart money is on a Brazilian winner with Cruzeiro, Inter and Fluminense seen as more likely than Santos or Gremio. Estudiantes seem to have passed their sell by date so Velez Sarsfield are the most likely club to threaten the Brazilian domination. America are not thought likely to provide a first ever Mexican winner although the general standard is so low that no outcome is impossible.

Fluminense After a poor Group Stage they are off to a flier in the Knockout Rounds

The first leg games produced some dominant performances and a few surprises.   Fluminense beat Libertad 3-1 and Velez Sarsfield saw off LDU Quito 3-0, both using home advantage well to almost certainly ensure a place in the Quarter finals. Away victories by Cruzeiro over Once Caldas, and Universidad Catolica over Gremio. should also see both of these teams into the last 8. The holders, Inter PA, went to Montevideo and obtained a 1-1 draw with Penarol which should be enough to see them through. The other 3 ties are more finely balanced. Santos beat America Mexico 1-0 at home and with Neymar in fine form should just scrape through, possibly with the help of the away goals rule. The other two first leg ties, both ending in draws, could go either way. Estudiantes, recent winners of the Libertadores, could not score against Cerro Porteno at home despite almost constant pressure but they are probably still likely to go to go through. In the final tie Jaguares of Mexico could only draw 1-1 against Atletico Junior and that away goal might be sufficient to ensure the Colombians go through in Barranquila.

On the basis of the first leg performances the LSA money is on Cruzeiro to meet and beat Inter PA in an all Brazilian final. Santos and Estudiantes are the main threats to Cruzeiro’s passage to the Final, and Fluminense or Velez should be the major dangers for Inter. LSA will provide regular reports as the Copa Libertadores progresses over the next couple of months to identify the club that will challenge Manchester United or Barcelona for the 2011 title of World Club champions.

The standard of play so far in the tournament has been very poor, although Brazil does seem to be producing a new generation of forward stars with Neymar and Leandro Damiao(InterPA) who were both so impressive against Scotland being joined by Wallyson who has shone for Cruzeiro in their performances so far. The next Letter from South America will explore one of the reasons why such a gulf in class has developed between the very top European clubs and the best in South America.