It has been a long first course before the main dish arrives. The draw for this year's Copa Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions League, takes place on March 27 -- possibly with an appearance by Argentina's World Cup-winning squad, although so far that is unconfirmed. After six weeks and three stages of qualifying rounds, though, four teams have confirmed their presence in the field of 32.
A total of 19 teams took part. Atletico Mineiro of Brazil, Medellin of Colombia, Cerro Porteno of Paraguay and Peru's Sporting Cristal have made it into the Libertadores. For four other teams (Millonarios of Colombia, Magallanes of Chile, Fortaleza of Brazil and Huracan of Argentina), there is the consolation of a place in the draw for the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent. But international competition in 2023 is over for the other 11 -- two each from Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela, one apiece from Chile, Paraguay and Peru.
And so far, the action has gone to form.
The idea that the Brazilians are the teams to beat might seem blindingly obvious. The past three finals have been all-Brazilian affairs. This, though, is a new development. In the previous five-year period between 2014 and 18, there was only one Brazilian finalist.
True, Fortaleza lost home and away to Cerro Porteno, but Fortaleza are a shock side, playing only their second campaign in the competition, while Cerro Porteno are in their 44th. For them, the Libertadores is an obsession. They played their home leg in front of a fervent capacity stadium, and their goalkeeper -- a Brazilian -- was one of the stars of the show.
The other Brazilian team in the qualifying rounds was able to cruise through. Atletico Mineiro were by some distance the best team on show. Champions in 2013, they are entitled to dream of a repeat performance. After winning the domestic league and cup double in 2021, they fell back last year, but with an intelligent Argentine coach in Eduardo Coudet and Paulinho, brought back from Germany, quickly forming a fine strike partnership with Hulk, they are out to inaugurate a new stadium later this year with some silverware. No one will relish facing them.
How, then, might the rest of the continent compete with the Brazilians? It is hardly a fair fight. Huge financial gaps have opened up. While Brazil's big clubs can sign players from Europe and cherry pick from neighbouring nations, the rest of the continent loses players to MLS. The logical response is to fall back on blanket defence, especially away from home. To stand any chance of overcoming the big Brazilians, it is essential to neutralise their attacking talent.
Atletico Mineiro's tie against Millonarios was fascinating viewing. They fought out a 1-1 draw in Bogota. For the trip to Belo Horizonte, a talented Colombian side made a concerted attempt to hold the Brazilians at bay. Atletico were denied a shot on goal for the entire first half. They took the lead soon after the interval, and added two late goals as Millonarios were forced in search of an equaliser. But the safety-first model did well for a while, and was also important when little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador held Rio giants Flamengo in the Recopa last month before winning the title on penalties. The big Brazilians, then, should be preparing a strategy for teams that will seek to hide the ball and run down the clock.
Some other trends of recent years were reinforced over the past six weeks. Paraguay, for example, consistently punch above their weight, meaning that Cerro Porteno's elimination of Fortaleza is not a great surprise. At the other end of the scale, the elimination from the Libertadores of both teams from Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela is predictable enough. Chile have been a clear underperformer in recent years. The good news is that this year's representatives, Magallanes and Curico, are small, inexperienced teams who performed with credit. Bolivia have only qualified one team to the last 16 of the competition in the past five years. Uruguay have not sent a single team to the knockout stages in two years -- and were represented by small clubs when they did -- and Venezuela have experienced six straight wipeouts.
An even worse record belongs to Peru -- no team in the last 16 for a barely credible nine years. In that context, Sporting Cristal making it through to the group phase is heartwarming. It was dramatic; the only goal of the two legs against Huracan of Argentina came in the 97th minute of the return game. Perhaps Cristal are already reaping the benefits of bringing in Tiago Nunes, a Brazilian coach with considerable experience of the later stages in continental competitions.
Probably the biggest disappointment in the past few years has been Colombia. Atletico Nacional won the title in 2016, the last time the Libertadores was squeezed into the first half of the year. In the six seasons since then, only two Colombian teams have made it out of the group phase -- an astonishingly poor record when compared with much smaller nations such as Ecuador and Paraguay. Millonarios have already fallen to Atletico Mineiro, but leave the competition with some credit, while Medellin moved comfortably into the group phase. With Atletico Nacional back in the competition, perhaps Colombia will be capable of mounting a stronger challenge this time round.