Lucas Lima shows the way for Santos, while Palmeiras lack direction
Three things from Wednesday night at the Copa Libertadores.
1. Lucas Lima is a class act
Just over a year ago, attacking midfielder Lucas Lima came in for some heavy criticism when Brazil were knocked out of the Copa Centenario in the group phase; there is a lot of pressure on anyone handed the No. 10 shirt. Since coach Tite took over, he has been dropped from the team and for the last set of World Cup qualifiers from the squad as well. But he remains a highly useful player -- it is hard to think of a more qualified reserve for Renato Augusto in the Brazil starting lineup -- and on Wednesday night, Lima made a strong case in his own defence.
His Santos side were a goal down to Atletico Paranaense, who, roared on by their supporters, were going in search of a second. Santos made a key defensive change. Atletico's attacking left back, Sidcley, was running riot, so Santos swapped their wingers round, switching Bruno Henrique to the left and bringing the more defensive minded Colombian Jonathan Copete to the right, where his marking work was important.
The main factor in Santos's 3-2 win, though, was the performance of Lima. On the equalising goal, he began the move from deep, exchanged passes with left-back Jean Mota and slipped in striker Kayke behind the defence down the right channel. It was a move on which Lima used most of the width and much of the length of the field -- and it is precisely this characteristic that makes him so interesting. He is not some old-fashioned No. 10 who comes alive only in the last 30 metres. He can run the game all over the field, which would explain the interest that Barcelona apparently have expressed in taking him across the Atlantic.
He can push and run short passes, and that's how he was involved in the second Santos goal. And he can also pass over range; the third goal came when he opened up the pitch with a gloriously precise long ball to Bruno Henrique. But he might not be the easiest player to handle, which is exemplified by his angry reaction to the (admittedly baffling) decision to substitute him in the closing stages.
2. Brazil's champions still below par
For all the money spent accumulating their squad, Palmeiras continue to disappoint. They won the Brazilian league at the end of last year under coach Cuca, who then resigned. Replacement Eduardo Baptista proved unconvincing, and so two months ago, Cuca returned to take charge of a squad that has been re-enforced with the help of the club's wealthy sponsor. Even bearing in mind the coaching instability, such opulence should be able to come up with more than Palmeiras produced on Wednesday night in their 1-0 defeat away to Barcelona of Ecuador.
The team created a couple of clear opportunities on the counterattack. But they hardly had the ball, especially in the second half, when almost the entirety of the action took place close to their goal. They seemed happy to hang on for a draw but paid a price, which is always likely to fall on teams that defend too deep. In stoppage time, the shot from Barcelona centre-forward Jonathan Alvez took one, possibly two deflections before squirming inside the low left corner of the goal defended by Fernando Prass.
Even a goalless draw would not have been an entirely comfortable result. Barcelona are a side who struggle to create in reduced space but are very dangerous on the counterattack and should relish having more space Aug. 9 in Sao Paulo, especially now that Palmeiras are obliged to come forward. Palmeiras, then, might have to play like true Brazilian champions if they are to reach the last eight.
3. Visiting teams are doing well
Home advantage counts in South America. Distances are vast. Travel links can be rudimentary. At the end of the voyage, there are intimidating atmospheres and climatic differences, such as altitude.
All of this can tip the balance. The group phase of the 2008 Copa Libertadores is an extreme example but illustrative nonetheless. There were 62 home wins and just 16 away. The best year in recent times for the road teams was 2015, with 46 home wins and 29 away. In Europe, where travel is easier and altitude is not a factor, the road sides tend to do better.
But they have been doing very well in the opening games of this Libertadores knockout phase. Before the final two games went to the home sides, the first three were won by the visitors. Admittedly, they were, on paper at least, the stronger sides. The round pits the eight group winners against the group runners-up, with the former having the supposed advantage of playing the second game at home. The figures show that this advantage does not always apply -- a consequence of the away-goals rule. But those opening three winners (Santos, plus their compatriots Gremio, who won 1-0 away to Godoy Cruz of Argentina, and fellow Argentines River Plate, who overcame Guarani of Paraguay 3-2) are in a strong position going into next month's return matches.
The altitude of Cochabamba was surely a factor in Jorge Wilstermann's 1-0 win over Atletico Mineiro of Brazil. The Bolivians won all three of their home games in the group phase and lost on all three of their travels. La Paz, even higher up the Andes, should give The Strongest of Bolivia an advantage in the first game Thursday night, when they take on Lanus of Argentina. Playing in extreme altitude is frequently an exercise in damage limitation for unacclimatised visitors.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.