The quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League, are a carve up between Brazil and Argentina — but not a carve up taking place on equal terms. First, Brazil has five members to Argentina’s three. Second, the Brazilian clubs are far bigger.
With River Plate and Boca Juniors falling in the previous round, the surviving Argentine teams — with all due recognition to their histories and traditions — are relatively small. And in the 28-club first division, none of them are even in the top 20. Estudiantes lie 21st, with Velez Sarsfield and Talleres a couple of places behind. The Brazilian quintet, meanwhile, are almost all giants, and all five are currently in the top seven of their league. The last two versions of the Libertadores have ended in all-Brazilian finals. There is a strong chance that 2022 will make that three in a row.
The possibility of an Argentine club sneaking through to the final is boosted by the meeting in this round of Brazil’s four super clubs. The round starts on Tuesday with the clash of, historically, the most popular sides in the land — Corinthians of Sao Paulo at home to Flamengo of Rio.
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There is, though, an obvious contrast between the current versions of these giants. In their last Libertadores match, Flamengo scored seven goals — two more than Corinthians have managed in the eight games they have played. Flamengo have an embarrassment of attacking talent, so vast that it has not always been easy to cram into the same side.
Their spell early this year with Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa was not a success. His replacement, Dorival Junior, may even have benefited from a couple of injuries, reducing his options and forcing him to focus on a coherent starting line up which is finally bringing the best out of center-forward Pedro, an outsider to crash Brazil’s World Cup squad.
Corinthians are currently second in the league, three places above Flamengo. But their Portuguese coach is well aware that these results have been sweated out. Plans for an expansive, high pressing team were almost instantly abandoned in favor of something more pragmatic, grinding out results. Reinforcements have now arrived — striker Yuri Alberto, Paraguayan centre-back Fabian Balbuena and Argentine defensive midfielder Fausto Vera — who could have an important role to play holding the Flamengo attack at bay. Even at home on Tuesday, Corinthians are likely to look to keep things tight.
A day later there is the meeting of last year’s domestic double winners Atletico Mineiro and Palmeiras, Libertadores champions in each of the past two years. They clash a round earlier than last year, when Palmeiras got through on away goals, a rule which is no longer in effect.
League leaders Palmeiras are the constant in this equation — solid and competitive under gifted Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira, and unlikely to risk more than is necessary. Atletico are something of an unknown. Coach Cuca stepped down after last year’s triumphs and results under his replacement, Argentine Antonio Mohamed, were not bad. But the team struggled to click, and a smaller squad meant there have been fewer game changers on the bench. Mohamed was sacked, Cuca was lured back, and got off to a bad start with a heavy league defeat at the weekend. The clear expectation is that Cuca can wave a wand and recapture last year’s magic.
Another veteran coach who has been doing well is Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has turned round Athletico Paranaense in the last three months. Now his side face an intriguing tie against the strongest of the Argentine continent, Estudiantes. Like Scolari, Estudiantes boss Ricardo Zielinski is a wily pragmatist. Much of his career has been spent taking teams out of trouble. Now he has more quality at his disposal and, in the Libertadores at least, he has fashioned a team that can be hard and ruthless but also come up with flashes of talent. The reigning champions of the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent, Athletico have invested heavily this year, bringing Fernandinho back from Manchester City. And with Estudiantes enjoying a special relationship with the Libertadores — their run of success in the late 1960s was revolutionary — this is clearly going to be a tough battle.
And finally there is the all-Argentine clash of Velez Sarsfield and Talleres. Champions in 1994, Velez have established themselves as a club capable of punching above their weight, especially with fine youth development work. The current young side made a dreadful start to the competition, but dug deep to save themselves and will have confidence flying after getting past River Plate in the last round — especially after keeping two clean sheets. Talleres of Cordoba are making their debut in the quarterfinal, and their Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha might relish underdog status, in the hope that it might work in favor of his team’s counter-attack. But whoever gets through will be the underdog in the next round — a Brazilian giant awaits.