Power shift in Copa Libertadores apparent as knockout stage looms

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The Copa Libertadores can seem like a slow burner, but it is about to catch fire.

The final group games are taking place in South America's equivalent of the Champions League. Next week, the 16 remaining teams kick off the knockout stage. Come June 1, just two are left standing -- and it is a fair bet that one of them will be from Brazil. In the last 20 years, only three times has the final not featured a Brazilian club.

That statistic might come as a surprise. When the Libertadores started in 1960, Penarol of Uruguay won the first two times. Santos of Brazil, with Pele at his peak, won the next two. But historically the tournament has been associated more with Argentina than anywhere else. Argentine clubs still lead Brazilians by 22 titles to 14. Between 1963 and 79, there was always a club from Argentina in the final.

It was during these years that the Libertadores won a special place in the folklore of Argentine soccer. New heroes emerged on the pitch, new songs were invented on the terraces. But the last year of that run of consecutive finalists -- 1979 -- is probably significant. Winning the World Cup the previous year had put Argentine players in the global shop window as never before. As players were sold abroad the standard dropped. Clubs from Paraguay, Colombia and Chile took advantage and won the first titles for their countries.

Argentina has never been so dominant again. River Plate won its second title in 1996. Since then only two Argentine clubs -- Boca Juniors and Estudiantes -- have reached the final. In the same period, 10 Brazilian clubs have done so. In fact, Brazil has provided 12 of the last 18 finalists. In the last two years, Estudiantes was the only Argentine club to reach the quarterfinals. Both times, four of the last eight were from Brazil.

This strong -- almost dominant -- Brazilian presence in the Libertadores is a strikingly recent development. In the first 30 years of the competition, the giant country claimed a mere five titles.

Part of the explanation lies in Brazil's very size. Isolated as the continent's only Portuguese-speakers, Brazilians were customarily much more concerned with internal matters than events elsewhere in South America. Even today, the unpleasant and ignorant term "gringo" continues to be used to apply to Argentines, Colombians, Peruvians and so on.

After 1965, Santos tired of the Libertadores, which, before the days of blanket TV coverage, was not much of a money spinner and was frequently blighted by violence and intimidation. Pele's club preferred to play lucrative friendlies. In 1966 there was no Brazilian participation in the Libertadores, in protest at the decision to expand the competition to include two teams per country. The Brazilians also sat out the action in 1969 and '70.

Times have changed. The Libertadores is now the No. 1 priority of most big Brazilian clubs. It is more interesting in financial terms (though the strength of the Brazilian currency has somewhat devalued the prize money, calculated in dollars). It brings prestige, international recognition and the chance of living the dream -- the winner takes part in the World Club Championship, with the possibility of putting one over those rich and glamorous Europeans. So these days when it comes to the Libertadores, the Brazilians are in it to win it.

This pattern -- the replacement of Argentina by Brazil as the main force in the Libertadores -- has been in evidence this year, especially in Cruzeiro's destruction of reigning Argentine champions Estudiantes.

Two months ago, in its opening group match, Cruzeiro ran up a 5-0 victory over Estudiantes, Juan Sebastian Veron and all. Last week's return fixture in La Plata was something of a dead rubber. Both sides had booked their place in the knockout stage, and in front of a small crowd Estudiantes fielded an experimental side. Losing 3-0 at home, though, was not part of the plan.

With five wins and a draw, with 20 goals scored, Cruzeiro has been the most impressive side in the competition so far, and many see them as favorites for the title won last year by fellow Brazilians Internacional.

The reigning champion, though, will not give up its crown without a fight. Internacional also qualified by topping its group and in statistical terms was the third-best team in the group stage.. Extra interest has been added to its participation by the appointment last week of former midfield idol Falcao to coach his ex-club.

Inter's big Porto Alegre rivals Gremio is also safely through to the last 16, though it will need to improve its away form to make serious progress. Much vaunted Santos has been through a turbulent time, but saved itself by winning its last three games. And reigning Brazilian champions Fluminense left it even later to book their place. Fluminense went into its last match with an 8 percent chance of qualification. If Nacional of Uruguay won at home to America of Mexico the Braziians would be out. That game finished goalless, leaving Fluminense needing to win away to Argentinos Juniors by a two-goal margin. A controversial 87th-minute penalty put them 4-2 ahead, ensuring that all five Brazilian teams are through to the last sixteen.

Argentinos Juniors only needed a draw. Its defeat -- greeted by a vicious fight between the players at the final whistle -- leaves Argentina down to just two representatives.

Argentina had already lost two teams -- seven times champions Independiente and debutants Godoy Cruz finished third and fourth respectively in the same group, losing out to LDU of Ecuador and Penarol of Uruguay.

The principal challenge from Argentina was always likely to come from either Estudiantes or Velez Sarsfield, the best two teams in the country over the last couple of years. Both have booked their place in the last 16, though neither covered themselves in glory. Estudiantes, as we have seen, suffered two heavy defeats against Cruzeiro. Velez were beaten twice by Chilean opposition, and needed a last day victory away to Caracas of Venezuela in order to get over the line.

But that result is not without significance. One area of the game where Argentine clubs so often excel is the mental aspect. They are able to raise their game when it matters most. The stats might indicate a Brazilian domination of the Libertadores, but there is one indicator defiantly pointing in the other direction -- the last five times clubs from Brazil and Argentina met in the final, the Argentines came out on top.

The last time it happened was two years, when Estudiantes beat Cruzeiro. Then, just as now, they had met in the group phase. Then, just as this year, Cruzeiro won an emphatic victory in front of their own fans in the group game. Come the final, in the same venue, it was the Estudiantes players who performed the lap of honor. Fate has been kind to Estudiantes this year. It now faces Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. Should it emerge triumphant it will play the winner of Junior of Colombia and Mexico's Jaguares. The luck of the draw has kept them away from Brazilian opposition at least until the semifinal.

Tradition dies hard. Although the strength in depth of the Brazilian teams appears to be making them the dominant force in the Copa Libertadores, it would be unwise to discount the possibility of title number 23 for Argentina.