Brazilian clubs favourites to progress as Copa Libertadores returns

The annual club battle between Brazil and Argentina picks up steam again as the Copa Libertadores advance to the knockout stages this week.

Since a format change in 2017 – making it a year-long event rather than focusing on the opening few months – the two big countries have dominated, and 2022 will field all but four of the 16 teams, which will be reduced to eight in the next two weeks.

In the last few campaigns, Brazil has prevailed, providing the last three winners (Flamengo, Palmeiras x2) and both finalists in the previous two years (Palmeiras vs. Flamengo; Palmeiras vs. Santos). Brazilian clubs continue to grow, but for different reasons Argentina teams believe they could do better this time.

The country didn’t lose a club in the group stage: all six teams progressed safely, with the likes of Talleres and Colon performing better than expected and a young side of Velez Sarsfield managing to bail out after a poor start. And there’s the guarantee of an Argentine semi-finalist as Talleres and Colon now meet and the winner advances to a quarter-final against the winner of the Velez Sarsfield-River Plate clash.

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River, the 2019 champions, are the overwhelming favorites for this mini-championship in Argentina, although they will soon bid farewell to their star, Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez. It’s true that River got off to a disappointing start to Argentina’s season, but so did Velez, Talleres and Colon. Perhaps more important, however, is the sheer fact that Argentina’s teams are competitive.

In recent years, Argentine clubs have paid a price at this point of the year. The Libertadores continue with the knockout games, and just at the point where things are getting more serious, the country is still coming back from vacation. As the domestic season traditionally ends at the end of May, 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 crucial Libertadores game.

This year, however, there was a reorganization due to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which will be held in November. Argentina started their new league campaign earlier than usual and the sides were in action until June so they won’t be rusty.

That should be of great help in the two duels between Brazil and Argentina in this round. The glamor tie is between two giants, Boca Juniors and Corinthians – a repeat of the 2012 final and a third meeting this year after both won their home games in the group stage.

The other duel between Brazil and Argentina closes the round on the next two Thursdays. In the first leg, Fortaleza host Estudiantes in northeastern Brazil. Under the impressive Argentinian coach Juan Pablo Vojvoda, Fortaleza are enjoying their first Libertadores season to the fullest and it will be fascinating to see if they pull through their match against an Estudiantes side who combine tight defense and astute game management with flashes of talent .

The six Brazilian teams managed to avoid each other in this round, although future clashes seem inevitable as they are clear favorites in the games against non-Argentinian opponents. Two of them meet Paraguayan clubs. Palmeiras, champions for the past two years and leaders in Brazil’s first division, are overwhelming favorites against Cerro Porteno; while Athletico Paranaense, resurrected since Luiz Felipe Scolari’s appointment, will sit back to get past Libertad, who they already met in the group stage. It was a win for everyone back then, but Scolari put Athletico in the Brazilian top flight and confidence is high.

In the remaining duels, clubs from Brazil meet opponents from the north of the continent, who find themselves in opposite situations. Flamengo, winners of the year 2019, meet Tolima of Colombia – a side that could suffer from too much football as they are also in the middle of a two-legged final for the Colombian Championship after losing 3-1 at Atletico Nacional de Medellin in the first game. Win or lose in Sunday’s second leg, Tolima have just a few days to regroup before meeting a Flamengo side desperate to salvage a disappointing year.

Meanwhile, Emelec from Ecuador has not been in action since the end of May. Their domestic season – in which they finished sixth – has been on hiatus, and the resumption has been delayed by the wave of protests spilling through the country over soaring fuel, food and basic necessities prices. Protests in the capital Quito have been heavier than in Emelec’s port city of Guayaquil, but Brazilian league and cup winners Atletico Mineiro will await guarantees before traveling to attend the game that kicks off the knockout stages Tuesday night.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/conmebol-libertadores/story/4690323/brazilian-clubs-favourites-to-progress-as-copa-libertadores-returns Brazilian clubs favourites to progress as Copa Libertadores returns

Emma Bowman

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