Tim Vickery’s Notes From South America: Four Make It Into Copa Libertadores Group Stage

Nineteen teams went into the qualifying rounds of the Copa Libertadores.  Only four made it through to the group stage.

One of the four was Libertad of Paraguay. They saw off The Strongest of Bolivia, always dangerous at the extreme altitude of their mountain stronghold of La Paz.  And then, after a penalty shoot out, they got past the 2016 champions, Atletico Nacional of Colombia.

Libertad’s domestic form was patchy, and they got off to a slow start in the Paraguayan league. But the Libertadores was the priority. By any measure they had made a successful start to the 2019 season – which became even more successful last week, where they ran up the biggest victory of the entire first round of Libertadores group phase matches, beating Chilean champions Universidad Catolica 4-1.

There was a strange reward for the club’s Colombian coach, Leonel Alvarez.  The next morning he was sacked.  Indeed, he was reportedly locked out of club premises.

Other than an evasive declaration about breaking clauses in his contract, the club offered no official explanation.  And so the rumour mill went into overdrive, with insinuations linking Alvarez to all kinds of off field indiscretions.

Whatever has taken place, it was deemed sufficiently serious to cost the coach his job.  Former Argentina defender Jose Chamot was rushed in to replace him.  He has worked as an assistant and as a reserve team coach. But Chamot’s only experience in charge of a first team was a brief caretaker spell with Rosario Central in his native Argentina.  And so, a few months short of his 50th birthday, he is thrown into the deep end.  His first game comes this Tuesday, away to 2017 winners and last year’s semi finalists Gremio of Brazil.

Gremio were another team who had an interesting debut week. There were two Brazilian defeats; Atletico Mineiro went down 1-0 at home to Cerro Porteno – it really was a splendid week for Paraguayan teams – and Athletico Paranaense lost by the only goal away to Tolima of Colombia. The other Brazilians came back happier from their travels; there were wins for Flamengo (at San Jose of Bolivia), Internacional (Palestino of Chile), Palmeiras (Junior of Colombia) and Cruzeiro (Huracan of Argentina).

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These are excellent results – especially bearing in mind that the Argentine contingent did not manage a single victory. But the Brazilian triumphs were not always easy on the eye. At the business end of last year’s competition, the Brazilians were undone by an overcautious approach – and there are few signs that this has led to a rethink.

Gremio, though, are different.  At their best they are a possession based side that seek to seize the initiative in the game, home or away, and they took that mentality to Argentina for last week’s 1-1 draw with Rosario Central.

The 5-0 win at home to Cerro Porteno last May was one of the highlights of the 2018 Libertadores. Libertad, then, have some idea of what to expect. Veteran centre back Paulo Da Silva has an immense task organising the defence – and Chamot has a big decision to make about another vastly experienced former Paraguay international. Can he afford to start with Oscar Cardozo? The 35 year old centre forward has considerable virtues – he scored from his own half at home to The Strongest. But his lack of pace could be a problem in this match. It might be preferable to cover up in midfield and look to break with speed, leaving Cardozo on the bench for a late charge if Libertad need to chase the game.

A week ago Jose Chamot could not possibly have imagined that he would be dealing with the selection dilemmas of Libertad. He may be delighted that the chance has come his way. But he is entitled to be fearful of what he might have to watch in his first 90 minutes on the touchline.

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