Road production proving key in Copa Libertadores qualifying rounds
Three teams have already bowed out, while their three opponents moved on to the next phase of qualification rounds in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League.
Two of the victors highlighted the importance of grabbing an away goal in two-legged knockout ties. In last week's six games -- first legs on Monday, return matches on Friday -- the visitors managed just two goals. Both were decisive. Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela equalised away to Macara of Ecuador -- and so a goalless draw in their home game was enough to send them through and bring a swift end to Macara's debut campaign.
More dramatic was the qualification of Bolivia's Oriente Petrolero. They beat Universitario of Peru 2-0 at home. But in the return game, they were trailing by three goals -- and by two men. After a couple of red cards, Oriente had just nine men on the pitch and needed a goal. Incredibly, they found one, helped by an ill-judged rush off his line by former MLS keeper Raul Fernandez. A header from Paraguayan centre-back Jorge Paredes bobbled over the line, sending the Bolivians through on the away-goals rule.
Amazingly, Paredes has had previous success against Universitario. A year ago he was playing for little Paraguayan team Deportivo Capiata, who were making their Libertadores debut in the qualifying round against the Peruvians. Universitario won 3-1 in Paraguay -- but Capiata, with Paredes in the team, did even better in Lima, winning 3-0. Assuming they make it through to next year's competition, Universitario will clearly be hoping that their path does not cross again with that of Jorge Paredes.
The third qualifier was Olimpia of Paraguay, who had few alarms eliminating Wanderers of Uruguay 2-0 on aggregate. Olimpia have massive Libertadores pedigree, with three titles to their name, and they are now joined in this week's action by two other former champions -- Nacional of Uruguay and Brazil's Vasco da Gama.
Sixteen teams are now involved -- the three qualifiers, plus 13 other sides. Last week, six countries were represented. Now, with the addition of clubs from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, all 10 South American nations are involved in the dispute.
Over the next two weeks, eight home and away clashes will take place. Then, in the following fortnight, the eight winners pair off and meet home and away, with four teams emerging victorious to take part in the group phase, which kicks off on Feb. 27.
It is a long and arduous road into the group phase. But the four teams who make it through will be battle-hardened and ready for the challenges to come. And all of them can take inspiration from Independiente del Valle, a little Ecuadorian club who two years ago went all the way from the qualifying round to the final of the competition. Independiente are back again and travel to Argentina to meet Banfield in this week's first leg.
A club certainly in need of an injection of hope are Chile's Santiago Wanderers. They qualified for the Libertadores by winning Chile's domestic cup. But their league form then collapsed, and they ended the year relegated to the second division. This week they are at home to Melgar of Peru.
The former champions are in action on Wednesday. Nacional travel to the south of Brazil to face Chapecoense, who surpassed their own expectations by qualifying for the competition. After that tragic air disaster nearly left them without a squad at the end of 2016, their objective last year was first-division survival. A place in the Libertadores was an unexpected bonus.
The two sides met in last year's competition, with Nacional coming out on top. The Uruguayans, though, have not looked impressive in their warm-up games, and so the remarkable Chapecoense comeback could gain some extra chapters.
Compatriots Vasco da Gama, meanwhile, are firm favourites against Chile's Universidad de Concepcion. Vasco, though, have had a turbulent few weeks, with a presidential election saga worthy of House of Cards. With home advantage in the first leg, it will be interesting to see if the Chileans can take advantage.
On Thursday night, the three qualifiers from last week are in action, two of them against strong Colombian opposition. Deportivo Tachira host Santa Fe, while, in what looks like the most exciting tie of the round, Olimpia are at home to Junior of Barranquilla. Oriente Petrolero, meanwhile, host fellow Bolivians Jorge Wistermann.
Last year, Wilstermann made it all the way to the quarterfinals, eliminating Brazilian giants Atletico Mineiro along the way. No one saw that coming. But that is part of the charm of the Libertadores. The capacity to surprise is always present.
The opening game of the round, Tuesday night's clash between Carabobo of Venezuela and Guarani of Paraguay, may not look like the most glamorous tie in the world. But perhaps the winner will pick up the confidence and momentum to trouble more traditional rivals in the course of the competition.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.