Copa Libertadores 2012: Brazil dominate knock out stages

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 03/05/12)

Last week saw two vastly different but equally fascinating Champions League semi-finals played out, epitomising the drama and emotion of continental competition.  Over in South America, the Copa Libertadores is currently at the Round of 16 knockout stage but has already seen its fair share of its own drama which makes it one of the most exciting tournaments in world football.

Nothing captured its unpredictable twists and turns better than the final set of games in Group 2 with three sides all fighting it out for the second qualifying spot.  Brazilian giants Flamengo needed a win against Argentines Lanus, themselves already through, to stand any chance of making the knockout stage.  However, they were at the mercy of the other game being simultaneously played in Paraguay between Olimpia and Emelec, where only a draw would see the Brazilians qualify.  Were there to be a winner in Asuncion, they would join Lanus in the next round.

Flamengo, inspired by a fantastic Ronaldinho performance, eased to a 3-0 lead within an hour.  Things were going their way in the other match too with the game tied at 1-1 with just minutes remaining.  All of a sudden Angel Mena put the Ecuadorians ahead in the 88th minute and it seemed Flamengo would crash out.  But the game wasn’t over yet and Pablo Zeballos levelled the game in injury time to keep Flamengo’s dream alive.  Despair quickly turned to joy in Rio and the players still on the pitch began to celebrate.  However, in one last cruel twist of fate for Ronnie’s boys, the Ecuadorians went up the other end of the pitch and immediately struck a winner to make it 3-2.  Utter jubilation was brutally cut short in mere moments.  This incredible finish and the Hollywood-esque rollercoaster of emotion perfectly sums up the appeal and excitement of the Libertadores.

Aside from Ronaldinho and his fallen compatriots, there remains a strong Brazilian contingent in the knockout stages of the Libertadores with five of the six representatives safely through.  This is nothing surprising given the higher allocation of places and Brazil’s economic prowess, currently the fifth largest in the world, which has allowed many clubs to hold onto their prize youngsters and lure big players back to Brazil.

At least one of these Brazilian clubs will be appearing in the quarter-finals as Fluminense and Internacional were drawn together.  Fluminense will have a slight advantage going into the second leg after a 0-0 draw in Inter’s Beira-Rio stadium.  Jesus Datolo’s penalty miss could prove costly as Flu will hope to make the most of their home advantage.

Hoping to join one of them will be Corinthians, although they still have plenty to do after a 0-0 draw against Emelec.  Unbeaten in the group stage, the Brazilians emerged unscathed after being reduced to 10 men in Ecuador and will expect to do enough at home to see them through, while Emelec will hope to be the scourge of yet another Brazilian side.

Thanks to a wonderful solo effort by Diego Souza, Vasco da Gama are 2-1 up against Lanus but Reguiero’s away goal means that it will be a hardly fought game in Buenos Aires next week.  While El Granate’s league form has been awful, they have added more firepower with Teo Gutierrez joining the squad.  The Colombian will only be able to feature in the Libertadores after his insane gun-toting incident after the Avellaneda Clasico saw him sacked by Racing.  On his day Teo is a highly talented striker and Lanus will hope he’s kept his shooting boots on if they are to progress further.

Finally, Santos make up the Brazilians in the tournament and last year’s winners will be among the favourites for the final this year.  However, their task has been made that little bit harder after once again succumbing to the Bolivian altitude, losing 2-1 to surprise package Bolivar.  Santos lost to The Strongest in the opening game of the tournament and suffered again in La Paz.  Bolivar are the first Bolivian team to make it past the group stages in 12 years and under Argentine coach Guillermo Hoyos have played some nice attacking football and have a penchant for a long range ping.  Will they be able to take another scalp?

Santos do have a vital away goal – so important in a competition where huge distances and differences in altitude play a massive part – and Neymar and co. should be too strong at home for the plucky Bolivians.  Therefore, there is a distinct possibility of four Brazilian sides still in the competition at the quarter-finals.

There are, however, a number of other big sides hoping to spoil the party for the Brazilian giants.

Boca Juniors will be aiming for their seventh Libertadores title and currently lead Union Espanola 2-1 after a dramatic last minute winner from Santiago Silva on Wednesday.  The game is still delicately poised but Boca will expect to progress to the next round where they could potentially set up a rematch against group rivals Fluminense.

Fellow Argentine outfit Velez Sarsfield also have one foot in the quarters, after Ivan Bella scored in an impressive 1-0 away victory against the one remaining Colombian team Atletico Nacional.  There is still all to play for and in Dorlan Pabon, with seven goals already to his name, At. Nacional possess one of the revelations of the Libertadores and the attack-minded Verdolaga will throw everything they have at Velez.  Easily two of the most watchable sides in the competition it should be a great encounter, with an equally exciting quarter final tie against Santos a potentially awaiting them.

Another of the top favourites, Universidad de Chile, are on the verge of crashing out after a 4-1 loss against Deportivo Quito.  La U are usually an absolute joy to watch and many would have fancied them to at least reach the semi-finals, but a brace from top scorer Matias Alustiza and one apiece from Luis Checa and Neymar look alike Fidel Martinez showed that Quito should not be underestimated.  The Chileans will have to be at their sparkling best if they are to stage an incredible turn around.

The winner of that tie would face the victor of Paraguayan side Libertad and Mexicans Cruz Azul.  After a 1-1 draw in the Mexican capital, Libertad will start the return leg as slight favourites being on home soil and with an away goal to their name.

Ahead of next week’s second legs there remains a strong Brazilian presence in the Libertadores and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them reach the final.  There has been a Brazilian team in all but one of the finals since 2000, Once Caldas beating Boca in 2004 being the only anomaly.

However, those 12 years have yielded just four winners and so it is by no means a given that the trophy will reside in the home of Samba for a third consecutive year.  With the likes of Boca, Velez, Quito and Univerisdad de Chile still in the tournament for now there are plenty of teams who can challenge for the title.  Whatever happens though, the one certainty is that will be plenty of drama right up until the final in July.