Brazilian clubs favourites to progress as Copa Libertadores returns

The annual club battle between Brazil and Argentina revs up once more as the Copa Libertadores moves into the knockout stage this week.

Since a change of format in 2017 — making it a yearlong event rather than crammed into the first few months — the big two countries have dominated, and in 2022 they provide all but four of the 16 teams that will be whittled down to eight over the next two weeks.

In the past few campaigns, Brazil have held the upper hand, supplying the past three winners (Flamengo, Palmeiras x2) and both finalists in the previous two years (Palmeiras vs. Flamengo; Palmeiras vs. Santos.) The relative financial power of the Brazilian clubs continues to grow but, for a number of reasons, Argentine sides feel that they might be able to do better this time.

The country lost no clubs during the group phase: all six teams made it safely through, with the likes of Talleres and Colon doing better than expected and a young Velez Sarsfield side managing to save themselves after a bad start. And there is the guarantee of an Argentine semifinalist, as Talleres and Colon now meet each other, and the winner will move on to a quarterfinal against the victor of the clash between Velez Sarsfield and River Plate.

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Champions in 2019, River are the overwhelming favourites to come through this mini-Argentine championship, even though they will soon be saying a fond farewell to their star man, Manchester City-bound striker Julian Alvarez. It is true that River have made a disappointing start to the domestic Argentine season, but so have Velez, Talleres and Colon. Perhaps more important, though, is the mere fact that the Argentine sides are in competitive action.

Over the past few years, the Argentine clubs have paid a price at this point in the year. The Libertadores resumes with the knockout games and, at the very point at which the action gets more serious, the country is still coming back from holiday. With the domestic season traditionally coming to a close at the end of May, the teams have not played for a month and have been active in the transfer market, which can unbalance a squad in the early stages. This is obviously poor preparation for a decisive Libertadores game.

This year, though, as a result of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar being played in November, there has been a reorganisation. Argentina started its new league campaign earlier than usual and the sides have been in action through June, so they will not be rusty.

This should be a big help in the two Brazil-Argentina clashes in this round. The glamour tie is between two giants, Boca Juniors and Corinthians — a replay of the 2012 final and a third meeting this year after they both won their home games when matched in the group stage.

The other Brazil-Argentina clash closes the round on the next two Thursdays. In the first leg, Fortaleza host Estudiantes up in the North East of Brazil. Under impressive Argentine coach Juan Pablo Vojvoda, Fortaleza are thoroughly enjoying their first Libertadores campaign, and it will be fascinating to see if they have met their match against an Estudiantes side which mixes tight defensive and canny game management with flashes of talent.

The six Brazilian teams have managed to avoid each other in this round, though future clashes would seem inevitable as they are clear favourites in the matches against non-Argentine opposition. Two of them face clubs from Paraguay. Champions in the last two years and leaders of the Brazilian first division, Palmeiras are overwhelming favourites against Cerro Porteno; while Athletico Paranaense, resurgent since the appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari, will back themselves to get past Libertad, whom they already met in the group stage. It was a victory apiece back then, but Scolari has Athletico roaring up Brazil’s first division table and confidence is high.

The remaining ties feature clubs from Brazil against opponents from the north of the continent who find themselves in contrasting situations. Winners in 2019, Flamengo are up against Tolima of Colombia — a side that could be suffering from too much football given they are also in the midst of a two-legged final for the Colombian championship, having gone down 3-1 to Atletico Nacional de Medellin in the first match. Win or lose in the second leg on Sunday, Tolima have only a few days to regroup before facing a Flamengo team desperate to rescue a disappointing year.

Emelec of Ecuador, meanwhile, have not been in action since the end of May. Their domestic season — in which they finished sixth — took a pause, and resumption has been delayed by the wave of protests over a spike in prices for fuel, food and basic necessities which is surging through the country. The protests have been stronger in the capital, Quito, than in Emelec’s port city of Guayaquil, but Brazilian league and cup champions Atletico Mineiro will wait for guarantees before travelling up to take part in the game which is due to kick off the knockout stage on Tuesday night.