Brazilian teams again power the Libertadores (cont.)
Nevertheless, Săo Paulo is the favorite, buying it time to get the team in form for the quarterfinals. The fact that it wasn't that impressive in the group stage is now irrelevant -- and the Rio de Janeiro duo of Flamengo and Fluminense need to be aware that the same applies in the reverse.
They had the best records of any of the qualifiers -- but that isn't the slightest guarantee of getting into the quarterfinals. Some in the Rio press are treating Fluminense's tie with Atlético Nacional of Colombia as a virtual walkover. It most certainly is not. Nacional is a dangerous opponent, capable of attractive passing play and with a number of talented players.
Rampaging right back or right-sided midfielder Camilo Zúńiga is the most eye-catching, but the biggest threat could well come from the veteran (and alum of Major League Soccer's MetroStars) Sergio Galván Rey. Now approaching 35, Galván Rey used to be an out-and-out striker. He now tends to operate a little bit deeper, where he shows that he is a master of reading the game and choosing the moment for his forward bursts.
Galván Rey will test the concentration of athletic Fluminense holding midfielder Ygor, and the excellent center back partnership of the experienced Luiz Alberto and the classy Thiago Silva. Their solidity allows Flu to bomb forward with its fullbacks, Gabriel on the right and especially Júnior César down the left.
The left-footed pair of Thiago Neves and Darío Conca give the midfield creativity, striker Washington the goal threat -- with the possibility that the skilful veteran Dodô could have recovered from a facial injury in time to play. This is potentially one of the best matchups in the Libertadores round of 16.
Flamengo has an even longer trip north, up to Mexico City to face Club América. This week's first leg combines two of Flamengo's hates: road games and altitude. Perverse, then, that perhaps the team's most convincing display this year came in the second half at Cuzco, high in the Andes, when it beat Peru's Cienciano 3-0.
Like its city rival, Fla has a pair of adventurous fullbacks, Leonardo Moura and Juan. It also has a midfield full of dynamic, box-to-box players -- Ibson, Kléberson, Toró and Cristian -- to link up with talented youngster Renato Augusto and burly striker Souza.
They should have chances -- América has suffered for not investing enough in defensive reinforcements, and without the wonderful reflexes of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, would already have been eliminated.
One of Flamengo's main concerns is that it's also involved in important domestic action. Sunday is the second leg of the final of the Rio State championship, with the red-and-blacks a goal up from the first game against Botafogo.
Coach Joel Santana is about to pack his bags and take over the South African national team -- it would only be natural for him to want to leave the club with a title, which could mean focusing on Sunday's game at the expense of this Wednesday's. If Flamengo's minds aren't on the job in the Estadio Azteca, América's stocky Paraguayan striker Salvador Cabańas will be ready to strike.
Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte is also involved in a domestic final, in the championship of Minas Gerais state. But on Sunday it put a hand on the title with a 5-0 first leg thrashing of local rival Atlético -- morale is soaring as Cruzeiro prepares for the glamour matchup of the round against defending champion Boca Juniors of Argentina.
This showdown would make a worthy final of the Libertadores. Boca has the tradition -- six titles in all, four of them since '00 -- and stars such as playmaker Juan Román Riquelme and the strike partnership of Martín Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio.
But two-time champion Cruzeiro has looked very impressive; Bolivian striker Marcelo Moreno has something of a young Gabriel Batistuta about him, and forms an excellent partnership for the stocky, talented young Guilherme. The midfield features the lung power of Ramires, the left-footed skill of Wágner -- and back from injury, Fabrício, whose ability to play the first pass out of defense with quality brings out the best in those around him.
And perhaps that 5-0 win over Atlético tips the balance Cruzeiro's way. It should be able to take its foot of the pedal a bit in this Sunday's return match, which comes in between the two games in the Libertadores. Boca has no such luxury.
There is no relaxation for it this Sunday -- in the Argentine Clausura it takes on River Plate in the game modestly referred to in Buenos Aires as the superclásico. A few tired muscles from that game could help Brazil's quest to dominate the '08 Libertadores.