The possibility of an all Argentina-Brazil last eight of the Copa Libertadores was avoided on Wednesday, when two Brazilian teams fell to Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia and Barcelona of Ecuador, respectively. Then, on Thursday, Barcelona's local rivals from the city of Guayaquil, Emelec, came very close to springing a third surprise.
Emelec had gone down 1-0 at home to San Lorenzo of Argentina in last month's first leg. But in Buenos Aires they won by the same scoreline, taking the tie to a shootout. There were very nearly two Ecuadorian teams in the last eight, but San Lorenzo came through to win 5-4, ensuring the presence of three Argentina clubs in the quarterfinals.
But like compatriots Lanus and River Plate, San Lorenzo were not especially impressive this week and owed their place in the last eight to their first-leg performance. This is hardly a surprise. The new-look, year-long calendar of the Libertadores does not work in their favour. The Argentine domestic season follows the European model. The last campaign came to a close in June, and the new one has yet to kick off.
Their teams, then, are badly out of rhythm, and in some cases with plenty of new faces to bed in and old campaigners to replace. San Lorenzo played the last half an hour against an Emelec side who were down to 10 men, but they did not have the gas to make it count. The good news is that by the time the quarterfinals are played, in the middle of September, the domestic season will be up and running and the Argentine teams should be better, in physical and technical terms.
Brazil has no mid-year break. Their season is in full swing, which makes the eliminations of Atletico Mineiro (to Jorge Wilstermann) and reigning domestic champions Palmeiras (to Barcelona) all the more disappointing. The two Brazilian clubs have made huge investments in their squads and went into the competition with their sights set on taking home the trophy, only to reveal an alarming paucity of ideas.
Botafogo are the opposite case. A famous name in Brazilian football -- supplier of many of the big names from the World Cup-winning sides of 1958, '62 and '70 -- they have little Libertadores tradition and have come through some hard times. A year ago, many of their fans thought they were destined for domestic relegation. But then the young Jair Ventura, son of the legendary Jairzinho, took over as coach, and since then, fortunes have dramatically changed. The club powered through the second half of the Brazilian league to snatch a place in the Libertadores, where they made agonising progress through two qualifying rounds.
The side have picked up confidence. They have no great pretense toward playing stunning football, recognising their limitations and playing happily within them. And after home and away wins over Nacional of Uruguay, faith is starting to grow that they could go all the way. Last month they won 1-0 in Montevideo.
Any chance of a Uruguayan comeback was eliminated within five minutes into the second leg in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday. In that way that confident sides have of making things happen, Botafogo were quickly two goals up, one from a corner and the other from a bad back pass. At no stage did Nacional ever hint at getting back in contention, and the only relevant question at the end was that of how many red cards they would receive. The answer was three.
And so there are three Brazilian sides left in one half of the draw; Santos grabbed the last spot Thursday with home and away wins over compatriots Atletico Paranaense, and will face Barcelona, while Botafogo and Gremio square up in an all-Brazilian quarterfinal. And there are three teams from Argentina in the other half; San Lorenzo take on Lanus, while River Plate will be keen to avoid making the mistake of underestimating Jorge Wilstermann, the Bolivian team named after an aviation pioneer who have flown into the quarterfinals.