Brazilian clubs dominate as the Libertadores Cup reaches the business end.

By Tim Vickery
With the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, the progress of San Luis and Guadalajara to the knockout phase of the competition gave organisers huge problems over where to play the Mexican sides’ home leg of ties against Nacional of Uruguay and Sao Paulo of Brazil respectively.

Colombia and Chile were sounded out as venues, only for local authorities to block the move. The games were put back a week to buy time, and then moved back to Mexico, which by now was gradually emerging from its shutdown. However, when the South American teams refused to travel, and the competition administrators backed their stance, the two Mexican clubs withdrew in protest.

On the field, the round of 16 also bade farewell to the last representatives from Peru, Chile and Paraguay.

Universidad SMP, the first club from Peru to reach this stage of the Libertadores for five years, are an attractive, open side – albeit too open to live with Brazil’s Gremio. The aerial prowess of striker Maxi Lopez was decisive in Gremio’s 3-1 away win in the first leg, making the return (which Gremio won 2-0) a formality.

Much the same was true of Universidad de Chile’s clash with Brazilian opposition. Cruzeiro keeper Fabio needed to be in fine form in the early stages of the first leg in Santiago but, despite the odd defensive wobble, his attractive team were well worth their 2-1 victory – which they followed up a week later with a comfortable 1-0 triumph in Belo Horizonte. Beaten Universidad coach Sergio Markarian was quick to acknowledge that his team had been outgunned in technical and physical terms.

Libertad of Paraguay are a well-organised, counter-attacking side who made an excellent start to the campaign, but their limitations when chasing the game were exposed by Estudiantes of Argentina. True, a controversial decision played a part as, already 1-0 down in Argentina, Libertad suffered the double blow of conceding a controversial penalty and a red card for left-back Miguel Samudio when it seemed that no foul had been committed. Estudiantes, undoubtedly improving under coach Alejandro Sabella, won 3-0, and Libertad could make no impression in a goalless second leg.

Estudiantes are alone in carrying the Argentinian challenge, while Brazil can boast four of the last eight.

Palmeiras came through the all-Brazilian tie against Sport Recife. The teams had also met in the group stage, and in all they produced four petulant and abrasive games with little for the purist. Both matches in the knockout round went 1-0 to the home side, before 2002 World Cup-winning keeper Marcos saw Palmeiras through with a wonderful performance in the penalty shoot-out.

Argentina’s other last-16 representative Boca Juniors were surprisingly beaten by Defensor of Uruguay. Boca’s defensive deficiencies in the air were shown up in the first leg in Montevideo, but coming away with a 2-2 draw appeared to have left them with one foot in the quarter-finals. In Buenos Aires, however, a superb strike from the talented Diego De Souza gave Defensor the advantage. Although Boca made all manner of attacking substitutions, their play was panicky and lacked conviction, and they were unable to find the equaliser that would have sent them through.

Defensor, therefore, qualify for the quarter-finals for only the second time in their history, while Caracas of Venezuela will be making their debut in the last eight.

On a waterlogged pitch they lost 2-1 away to Deportivo Cuenca of Ecuador in their first leg, but back on their own bumpy field they maintained their 100 per cent record at home with
a comfortable 4-0 win.