Copa Libertadores knockout rounds: Brazilian clubs primed to rule Argentina
Two years ago, the final of South America's Copa Libertadores was between Atletico Nacional of Colombia and Ecuador's Independiente del Valle, two sides from the north of the continent. Since then, the competition has been reorganised. It is now played throughout the year, rather than being squeezed into the first semester. And more slots have been given to teams from the big two, Brazil and Argentina.
The consequences are clear. The group phase of this year's competition has now come to a close, and of the 16 sides that move on to the knockout phase, six are from Brazil and six are from Argentina. There is very little room for anyone else. Two Paraguayan sides, Libertad and Cerro Porteno, made it through in comfort. And there were two slots up for grabs in the only group that did not contain a side from the big two -- Atletico Nacional and Chile's Colo Colo took advantage.
But when the action resumes after the World Cup, the focus of the Libertadores will be on Brazil and Argentina. Or more specifically, Brazil against Argentina.
In the first knockout round, the group winners will face the group runners-up, with the ties to be defined in a June 4 draw. And of the six Brazilian teams, Gremio, Cruzeiro, Santos, Corinthians and Palmeiras all topped their group, with Flamengo the only runners-up. The odds, then, of Flamengo facing a fellow Brazilian are high: of eight possible opponents, more than half are compatriots.
The only Argentine side to top a group was River Plate. The other five -- Atletico Tucuman, Racing, Estudiantes, Independiente and Boca Juniors -- each finished second. It is mathematically possible for the eight games in the next round to feature six between Brazil and Argentina, and there should be an absolute minimum of three.
And there is no doubt as to who the favourites will be. Brazil's clubs are in constant activity. Their club season goes through the calendar year. Matches in the domestic league go up until the World Cup, and resume straight afterward.
Argentina, meanwhile, favours a season that follows the European calendar, starting in August and going through to May. They are becoming increasingly isolated on the continent. Countries were split between the Argentine/European format and following the calendar year. But now that the Libertadores uses the latter, countries are switching to a February-to-December format.
The problem for Argentina is that their clubs will be dangerously short of competitive match action when the Libertadores resumes in the second week of August. The first legs of the knockout round kick off Aug. 7. Last year's Argentine Superliga did not kick off until Aug. 25, and dates for the coming season have yet to be finalised.
Rust is just one problem for the Argentines. The other is the question of contracts coming to an end at season's end. It is more likely that players will move on and replacements will be brought in -- without league games to help them settle when they take the field for the Libertadores.
The smart money, then, is on a 2018 Libertadores dominated by the Brazilians.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.