WE ALREADY know there will be one Brazilian team in the final of this year’s Copa Libertadores, thanks to two all-Brazil quarter-finals providing an all-Brazil semi-final. There is no danger of a repeat of last season’s domestic squabble but there are a number of big guns left in the competition, including the 2018 finalists, River Plate and Boca Juniors.
The last eight includes four heavyweights from Brazil (Palmeiras, Grêmio, Flamengo and Internacional), the Buenos Aires giants, River and Boca, and two dark horses in Ecuador’s LDU Quito and Cerro Porteño from Paraguay. On first glance, River and Boca are set to meet in the semi-finals, which may provide some headaches for CONMEBOL.
Brazil and Argentina have dominated the Libertadores in recent years – in the past three seasons, they have provided 19 of the 24 quarter finalists. Brazil had a lean spell in the competition, underperforming despite the financial status of its leading club. South America struggles to compete against Europe these days, but Brazilian football is far wealthier than its local rivals, including Argentina.
Grêmio and Palmeiras meet this week just a couple of days after their clash in the Brazilian league. They drew 1-1, a result which keeps Palmeiras among the title chasers. They’ve lost just once in the league this season in15 games. Flamengo, who meet Internacional in the quarter-finals, are in second place in Série A, won 4-1 at Vasco da Game in their most recent match.
Flamengo and Internacional is the other all-Brazil tie. Flamengo recently entertained Mario Balotelli with a view to signing the mercurial striker. The club’s fans were very excited by the prospect but they couldn’t agree a deal, even though Flamengo offered him a two-year deal reputed to be worth US$ 10 million, and he elected to join Brescia in Italy.
Flamengo have benefitted from the goals of Gabriel Barbosa, a 22 year-old who is on loan from Inter Milan after failing to impress in his first season with the club. Barbosa has netted 23 times this season but will return to Italy at the end of December. Internacional have yet to lose a game in the Copa Libertadores this season and have attacking power in the form of Paolo Guerrero and Nicolas Lopez.
Holders River Plate are in good form at present having beaten Racing Club 6-1 away from home. They’re second in the league after three games and they’re got a big derby with Boca coming up on September 1. River’s defence is their strong department and they’ve got an excellent goalkeeper in 32 year-old Franco Armani, who was the club’s hero in a penalty shoot-out in the last 16 against Cruzeiro. They’ve also got a few injuries to contend with when they face Cerro Porteño, a team renowned for its commitment to attack.
Boca Juniors face a tricky away leg at LDU Quito in Ecuador. While Boca have been in good form, their away record in the Libertadores this season is average. Boca recently signed Roma’s Daniele de Rossi, a World Cup winner with Italy, at the age of 36. He scored on his debut for the club and has the ambition of playing in the Libertadores. “I’ve been passionate about this club since I was little. This club allows me to play at an excellent level and in the way I enjoy,” he told the media. Boca are currently second in the Argentine league and their opponents are eighth in the Ecuadorian top flight.
De Rossi is just one of a number of European-based players who have been attracted to South America at the back-end of their careers. Dani Alves left Paris Saint-German and Juanfran departed Atlético Madrid for Sao Paulo while Flamengo signed Rafinha from Bayern Munich and Filipe Luis from Atlético. While most Europe-South America transfer are usually players returning home, De Rossi and Juanfran may represent the start of a new trend – players prolonging their careers outside of Europe. Some are actually attracted by the passion and glamour of the Copa Libertadores.
This season’s competition is the most lucrative ever. CONMEBOL has increased the pot by a substantial 56% from US$ 104 million to US$ 162 million. This still pales into insignificance when compared to UEFA’s Champions League cash pool, which totals € 1.94 billion.
However, last season’s final debacle may have created some positives. The negative publicity raised the profile of the competition and it will be interesting to see if this creates a huge buzz around the final in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional in November.