Brazilian teams again power the Libertadores
In 2005 and '06, the final of the Copa Libertadores was an all-Brazilian affair. The South American Federation took action to prevent a repeat, ruling that if two teams from the same country made it through to the last four, they'd be forced to play in the semifinals -- thus ensuring two different countries are represented in the final.
But what if three teams from the same country all make it to the semis? That's a possibility this year -- and once again, the threat of an all-one-country final comes from Brazil.
Five Brazilan teams have made it through to the second round of this year's Libertadores. Five from Argentina have also qualified, but two of them (River Plate and San Lorenzo) will face each other. But the Brazilians have been kept apart.
So it's possible that there will be five Brazilians teams in the last eight -- no matter how the quarterfinals are arranged. The fact that the Brazilian sides have avoided each other in the second round is much more competence than luck or coincidence. The eight group winners are all kept apart at this stage, and four of the Brazilians won their group. The only team to finish second in its group was Santos, and as the eight runners-up now meet the eight group winners, Santos had a 50-50 chance of coming up against Brazilian opposition.
Instead, Pelé's former club faces Cúcuta of Colombia, with whom Santos is well acquainted. The teams met twice in the group stage, and know all about each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Cúcuta has done remarkably well to rebuild after selling off almost the entire team that made a surprising run to last year's semifinals. The '08 model is much more cautious. Santos is well aware that Cúcuta will defend deep, and then break with three key weapons: the passing ability of playmaker Macnelly Torres, the talent of striker Matías Urbano and the endurance of right-sided midfielder Jimmy Castro.
With the money from the sales of the Diego-Robinho generation now spent, the current Santos squad has less quality than in recent years. But it can still count on a greater range of attacking threat than its opponents: the wonderful crossing of left back Kléber, the daring promise of young striker Wesley, a poor man's Rivaldo in its own Colombian Mauricio Molina and an experienced penalty area predator in Kléber Pereira. Keeping their defensive discipline and concentration could well be the key to the tie.
São Paulo has what looks on paper to be an easier task. Nacional of Uruguay is a limited team, with little of the quality of the side that fell to Cúcuta in last year's quarterfinals. The aerial power of gangling veteran Richard Morales is its main threat, supported by the youthful promise of midfielder Mathías Cardaccio and striker Bruno Fornaroli.
Nacional will hope to build up a first-leg lead in its tight Parque Central stadium, but São Paulo should have too much experience to allow itself to be intimidated. The three-time champions are also perfectly set up to exploit Nacional's defensive problems in the air -- the Brazilian teams this year are scoring reams of goals from headers, and São Paulo is no exception. Almost every goal it has scored in this campaign has come from a towering header, either from big strikers Adriano and Aloísio, or giant center backs Miranda and Alex Silva.
Despite winning its group, São Paulo's play hasn't flowed. Hernanes is a hugely promising midfielder, with a touch of Italy's Andrea Pirlo in his game. But when Italy won the World Cup, Pirlo had Francesco Totti pass to. Hernanes has no one -- new signing Éder Luís runs well at the defense but, so far at least, has lacked the subtlety to link the play.