When things can't get any more difficult, Boca Juniors always seems to deliver. On Tuesday night, the Argentine giants sealed their spot in the final 16 of the Copa Libertadores after a dramatic ending to one of the most balanced groups in the whole competition.
Boca came into its crucial clash with Unión Atlético Maracaibo knowing it had to win by a massive five-goal margin to stay alive in the competition -- without having to rely on the outcome of the clash between its other group opponents, Colo-Colo and Atlas, who were playing at the same time.
Such a victory would be a near-impossible task for most clubs, but Boca is highly experienced in these kinds of circumstances. Although it only managed to win the match 3-0, Atlas' precious away point in Santiago, Chile, helped it through to the following round at the expense of Colo-Colo.
Boca's self-belief once again saved the day. Last year it found itself in an almost identical situation: It needed to beat Bolívar by four goals to advance from the group stage, and ended up thrashing the Bolivians 7-0. Then in the semifinals, Boca had to come back from a 3-1 deficit to Cúcuta Deportivo, and went on to beat the Colombians 3-0 at the Bombonera before destroying Grêmio of Brazil 5-0 on aggregate in the finals.
This time, Carlos Ischia's side knew it had to stay focused in order to overcome a disciplined Maracaibo squad, which had held it to a 1-1 draw in Venezuela in February. But Boca was up to the challenge once again. Not only did it dominate its opponents, it also created several scoring opportunities throughout the match, and when it needed to put them away, it did.
The Libertadores may only be approaching its round of 16 stage, but from what we've seen so far in the competition, you can bet that Boca will be fighting for its fifth title in nine years. As los Xeneizes demonstrated against Maracaibo, they have immense depth in all aspects of their game, and it will be very difficult for any club to match them.
Of course, this isn't to say that there aren't any other teams capable of challenging them. The five Brazilian clubs have been particularly impressive in the group phase, having only lost a combined six of their 26 matches through Tuesday.
All but one of the Brazilian teams in the competition have already qualified for the last 16. Three-time champion São Paulo should make it a clean sweep with a victory over Atlético Nacional at the Morumbí on Wednesday.
The likes of Cruzeiro, Fluminense and São Paulo have all shown enough evidence to indicate that a Brazilian team could steal away Boca's throne. Meanwhile, Flamengo and Santos have managed to recover after slow starts.
Perhaps the team that has played the most exciting brand of soccer has been Cruzeiro. A Raposa last won the Libertadores in '97, but its outstanding home record should go a long way in making it one of the main title candidates. The sensational form of the competition's leading scorer, Marcelo Moreno, should also help its cause.
But Boca must also deal with the challenge from its fellow Argentine clubs: River Plate, San Lorenzo, Estudiantes de La Plata and even Lanús. They have all done well so far, and what should further motivate them is the fact that besides Boca, the last time an Argentine team won the title was back in '96 when River Plate defeated América de Cali.
From the Argentine contingent, River is without doubt the team with the greatest potential of challenging Boca. River, which faces Boca in the Clausura Championship in early May, has finally rediscovered its winning mentality under Diego Simeone, and it seems more than capable of mixing it with the big guns this year.
As expected, Sebastián Abreu has added an extra dimension to River's attack. El Loco has already scored six goals in the competition, and his large frame has helped set up a number of others. He has been complemented by the speed of Diego Buonanotte and the presence of Radamel Falcao García in the area. Boca must be wary of its greatest rivals.
But even though there are several clubs who are capable of causing Boca serious problems, Ischia's side should still be considered the favorites. Boca has only lost twice in 17 matches this season (both in the Copa) and although it has produced good results, there's still lots of room for improvement.
The effectiveness of its attack has been one of its main concerns. Against Maracaibo, its strikers played horribly. The aging Martín Palermo was completely lost on the field and barely got a touch on the ball, while RodrigoPalacio continued his scoring struggles. He may have been involved in most of Boca's attacking moves, but he was extremely selfish, and wasted at least five clear-cut scoring opportunities.
Juan Román Riquelme, who only returned to action last weekend after missing nearly a month, played well below his potential, lacking accuracy on his free-kicks and passes. But the insanely gifted playmaker made up for it with Boca's third goal Tuesday, beating Maracaibo keeper Juan Carlos Henao with a sublime deft chip after some delightful footwork.
Another aspect of Boca's game that needs to be addressed immediately is its poor away form. It has yet to win an away match in the Libertadores this season, with two losses and a draw, and with the knockout stage of the competition fast approaching, this could be a decisive factor. Still, one of Boca's main characteristics is a tendency for picking up vital away wins when it matters most.
Boca has everything it takes to challenge for a record seventh Copa title, but to do this, it must begin to find the same consistency that allowed it to win the title last year.
It has demonstrated the necessary firepower to overcome difficult opponents, but what should be its greatest concern at this point is the quality of the clubs it may come across in the knock-out rounds. The champs know that from here on out, another title run only gets more difficult.