The first few days of this year's Copa Libertadores might shine some light on the big question hanging over the new version of South America's Champions League -- can anyone stop the Brazilians?
The last three finals have been all-Brazilian affairs, and the financial and technical gulf is growing between the country's giants and the rest of the continent. The big Brazilians have more money. They can bring back players from Europe and cherry pick from neighbouring nations, and it is becoming harder for the others to compete with them. They can also count on the force of numbers.
After the qualifying round eliminated 15 teams and allowed four through to the group phase Brazil have a grand total of seven representatives. Argentina have five, while Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru each have three. Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela have two apiece. The competition, then, is weighted in Brazil's favour.
The interesting thing about the opening week, though, is that it is set up for the underdogs. The favourites are drawn away, in a continent where home advantage counts for a lot. And so, with the exception of Atletico Mineiro, who came up through the qualifying rounds, the Brazilians are on the road this week, some of them on their way to inhospitable locations. That chiefly applies to Palmeiras, champions in 2020 and '21. They go up to the dreaded extreme altitude of La Paz to face Bolivar of Bolivia. Worse still, Palmeiras are in the middle of a two-legged final to decide the Sao Paulo state championship. In Sunday's first leg they went down 2-1 to little Agua Santa, an embarrassing first defeat of the season.
Palmeiras have shared domination of the Libertadores with Flamengo, champions in 2019 and '22. The current holders are also at altitude on Wednesday night, although it is a little further down the Andes. They travel to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito for a potentially tricky tie against Aucas. And Flamengo, too, are in the middle of a state final, though Saturday's 2-0 win over Fluminense has been a boost for morale.
Fluminense and their fascinating free flowing style have a,long journey of their own, though thankfully for them it ends at sea level in Lima where they will come up against Sporting Cristal, a side battle hardened by their struggles through the qualifying rounds.
Sao Paulo giants Corinthians have a shorter trip to Uruguay where on Thursday they will face Liverpool, a little club, but one who can count on some of the stars from the recent South American Under-20 Championships.
Tuesday's opening night immediately puts the Brazilian challenge away from home under the microscope. Internacional face a difficult trip to Medellin of Colombia, while last year's runners up Athletico Paranaense begin their campaign in Peru against domestic champions Alianza Lima. With a dreadful recent record in the competition Alianza badly need to pick up points in front of their own fans, especially because their group is so tough.
It is the only one to contain a pair of Brazilian sides -- one of the tournament favourites, Atletico Mineiro are also included. Domestic double winners in 2021, Atletico plan to inaugurate a new stadium this year, and would love to celebrate the occasion with some silverware. They open up their campaign at home to Libertad of Paraguay -- a fascinating encounter because Paraguay consistently manages to punch above its weight in this competition. In each of the last five years Paraguay has managed to get at least two teams into the round of 16, and this year Paraguay is represented by its traditional big three, with Olimpia and Cerro Porteno in the mix as well as Libertad.
The other over-achiever is Ecuador. Barcelona of Guayaquil are the only team outside Brazil and Argentina to have made the semi finals twice since the 2017 change of format, when the competition was extended to cover the complete calendar year. It is not easy to imagine Barcelona going so far this time round, but the remarkable Independiente del Valle club are worth a watch, and have already shown their strength this year by beating Flamengo on penalties to take the SuperCup. The main recent underachiever has been Colombia, which has done little in the competition since Atletico Nacional won the title in 2016. Their progress will be interesting to follow this year.
But the main threat to the continued Brazilian domination should, predictably enough, come from Argentina. Racing, though, are clearly suffering from the transfer of Carlos Alcaraz to Southampton, and Argentiinos Juniors might come up with promising moments but it is hard to see them going all the way. River Plate have responded to the Brazilian challenge by enlarging their stadium, which is now the largest in South America. But it will not see service this week. They, too, have the challenge of the extreme altitude of La Paz, where they will face The Strongest.
Boca Juniors, meanwhile, are contemplating the construction of an even bigger stadium. For the meantime, though, they will continue to be based in the famous Bombonera, although they too are on the road this week, visiting Monagas of Venezuela. Boca would seem to have been drawn in one of the easier groups, which is probably just as well. Coach Hugo Ibarra has just been sacked and a replacement has yet to be found. Boca will hope that by the time the knock-out rounds start in mid-July they will have found a blend sufficiently potent to compete with the Brazilians.