There is one aspect in which South America’s Copa Libertadores enjoys an advantage over its European equivalent, the Champions League — its lack of predictability.
Europe now has a self-perpetuating group of elite clubs in contention for the big prize. In the last few years, South America has started to go down a route of ‘same old, same old,’ too with total domination by clubs from Brazil and Argentina. That said, the Libertadores continues to have a much wider spread of clubs capable of launching a title challenge.
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Nowhere is that fact clearer than in this season’s final qualifying round. While Europe’s biggest heavyweights are battling for a place in the semifinals, some of South American’s top clubs are still fighting just trying to guarantee their place in the group phase.
Eight teams are fighting for the four remaining group places. In Europe, this would be a largely irrelevant prelude, but in South America, all of the clubs will be hoping that with a fair wind behind them they could potentially go far in the competition. In fact, four of these eight teams have won the Libertadores within the last 10 years.
There is one battle of two recent champions, as the round starts on Tuesday with 2014 champions San Lorenzo of Argentina at home to Santos of Brazil. Santos, who won their third title in 2011, lost in the final of last year’s tournament to Palmeiras.
Only one of the ties does not contain a former winner. Even so, it is a clash of titans. Bolivar of Bolivia were semifinalists in 2014, and now as a partner of the City Football Group, they aspire to something similar. They close the round on Thursday at home to Atletico Junior of Colombia, who have little recent Libertadores pedigree but have been heavy hitters in the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s Europa League equivalent, losing the 2018 final on penalties.
Fellow Colombians Atletico Nacional won the Libertadores in 2016 and on Wednesday visit Libertad of Paraguay, who are consistently strong in the competition, reaching the quarterfinals last year, as well as in 2011 and 2012.
But amid all of this, there is one tie that stands out — a clash between two clubs who are both very different and with strong similarities.
Gremio of Brazil are a giant club with a mass following and a glorious tradition. Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle are a tiny outfit with a very small fan base who have been in their country’s first division for little more than a decade.
What brings them together is their sound administration and their commitment to youth development. Independiente del Valle exists in order to produce and sell players. Nothing illustrates this better than the development of a single position in central midfield. Until just over a year ago it belonged to Alan Franco. He was sold to Brazil and was replaced by Moises Caicedo, who made such an immediate impression that he leap-frogged over Franco to get into the Ecuador national team and was then sold to Brighton in the Premier League. And his place has now been filled by busy little Pedro Vite, who is already winning widespread praise.
The reality of contemporary South American football turns even the biggest clubs into sellers of talent, and Gremio have done this as well as anyone. Central midfielder Arthur was developed, sold to Barcelona, and replaced by Matheus Henrique, who has already been capped by Brazil. When he moves on, the left-footed Darlan has been groomed to replace him. Wingers have also been a specialty. Everton was sold to Benfica last year and replaced by Pepe, who soon moves to Porto — and there are plenty coming along behind him.
Gremio won the Libertadores in 2017, were semifinalists in 2018 and 2019 and quarterfinalists last year. Independiente del Valle were beaten finalists in 2016, and were very unlucky not to make last year’s quarterfinals. In between, they won the 2018 Sudamericana.
Both these sides, then, are serious contenders. But only one can go through to the group phase. This match is so important for Gremio that it even dwarfed their domestic game on Saturday against local rivals Internacional. This clash, the so-called Gre-Nal, is seen as the fiercest rivalry in Brazil, but on this occasion, Gremio used the game as preparation for the Libertadores.
Inter’s new coach, the Spaniard Miguel Angel Ramirez, was until very recently the man in charge of Independiente del Valle, making the match an ideal rehearsal. He has already implanted the possession-style game that he used in Ecuador. Gremio are also usually a possession-based side, but on Saturday they gave much more emphasis on marking, on interrupting the opposition’s circuit of passing and alternating between dropping deep to launch the counter-attack, and pressing high to stop the other side building from the back. All of this looked like preparation to face Independiente del Valle, especially in Wednesday’s first leg at the altitude of Quito.
The Ecuadorians are now coached by a Portuguese, the former Benfica youth specialist Renato Paiva. He has given continuity to the work of Ramirez but is also happy to switch to a back three. This system has the possibility of giving him an extra man in midfield and helping the team’s passing, but it also can leave them vulnerable down the flanks.
Both sides of the coin were visible in the previous round, where Independiente del Valle lost 1-0 away to Chile’s Union Espanola before beating them 6-2 at home.
The Chileans played three up front — a bold move, especially at altitude and ultimately paid the price for it. But they also created some dangerous moments — and there was a brief moment in the second half in Quito when two quick goals brought home that they might pull off a remarkable comeback.
Gremio will mark better in midfield than Union Espanola, and can also carry a real threat down the flanks. Pepe may not be fit in time, but the slightly built Ferreira is a highly talented operator — and Gremio won Saturday’s derby with a last-minute strike from Leo Chu, yet another winger to emerge from their youth ranks.
The stage is set, then, for matches worthy of the later knockout stages of the competition. But the Libertadores tends to serve up this kind of feast even in the qualifying rounds.