Tim Vickery Column- A look at what Brazilian clubs need to do to safely make the next round of the Copa LibertadoresAtletico Mineiro narrowly won last season's competition
Two defeats, three draws and just one win last week for Brazil’s representatives in the Copa Libertadores and some are looking to push the panic button.
On Sunday night I was on a show on TV Brasil where the audience were asked whether they thought the six local clubs would make it through to the competition’s knock out stages. Nearly 70% thought they would not.
Reigning champions Atletico Mineiro would seem to have few problems, however. They might not have played particularly well, and their group might be relatively straightforward, but that is hardly relevant. The only aim at this point in the competition is to get safely across the line and into the last sixteen, and in Atletico’s case one win from their remaining three games will surely be enough.
It is a task which looks even easier because two of those matches are at home, in their Belo Horizonte fortress, the Independencia stadium. Atletico have already picked up four points – a win and a draw – from their two away matches, and in the Libertadores this usually makes all the difference.
Away wins in South America are much rarer than in Europe. The Champions League and the European national team qualifiers often have a ratio of one and a half home wins to every triumph for the visitors. In South America, both in the Libertadores and in World Cup qualification, away wins are usually twice as rare; the standard ratio is three to one. In this year’s Libertadores the situation is even more extreme; the group phase has so far contained 30 home wins to just 6 away.
This is the challenge that now faces Gremio, who thus far have probably been the most impressive side in the competition. But they are in the most difficult group, and now face their hardest two games – away to Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina and then to Atletico Nacional of Colombia. Even with two defeats, though, they should be safe. A last round win at home to Nacional of Uruguay, the weakest team in the group, should be enough to secure a place in the knock out stage.
After these two teams, though, things become a bit more complicated.
Cruzeiro went into the Libertadores as tournament favourites; Brazilian teams have won the title in the last four years, and, playing an exciting brand of football, coach Marcelo Oliveira’s team cruised to the 2013 domestic title. It was always likely, however, that the Libertadores would prove to be more of a test, and so it is turning out. Cruzeiro have lost both of their away matches. A 5-1 home win over Universidad de Chile gives them a good goal difference, and means that two more home wins should be good enough. But now the pressure is on, especially this Thursday against Defensor of Uruguay, who beat them 2-0 in Montevideo last week.
Botafogo also have a crunch home tie against opponents who came out on top a week ago. This Tuesday they face Independiente del Valle, a small club from Ecuador with an excellent youth policy. On a waterlogged pitch in a tiny stadium at the altitude of Quito, Botafogo went down 2-1 last Wednesday. It should be a different story in the Maracana – but, as in the case of Cruzeiro, the pressure is on. A victory will leave Botafogo sitting pretty – and the away point they picked up against Union Espanola should serve them well even if they are held to a draw.
Atletico Paranense have two obstacles to overcome. One is Velez Sarsfield of Argentina, a splendid side who beat them comfortably in Buenos Aires and who will meet them next week in Curitiba. The other is the altitude of La Paz, where they will travel to meet The Strongest of Bolivia for their final group game. First comes what should be the home banker against Universitario of Peru, a side who have yet to score in their three matches. Atletico have only managed two goals – and need to go in search of plenty more against the Peruvians this Thursday; the group may well be defined on goal difference.
The most complicated case is that of Flamengo, who have already lost away to Leon of Mexico, and who dropped two vital home points with last week’s 2-2 draw against Bolivar of Bolivia. This week they take on the same opponents in La Paz, 3,600 metres above sea level, and without some of their most important players – especially Paraguayan midfielder Victor Caceres, the fighting heart of the team in recent weeks.
In the rarefied air of extreme altitude it is impossible for unacclimatised teams to play their normal game, but Flamengo will surely have to win either in La Paz or in their next game, away to Emelec of Ecuador – who, thankfully for the Rio giants, are from Guayaquil, at sea level, rather than Quito, the country’s mountain capital.
Even if they manage to pull it off, and all the Brazilian clubs battle their way through, a question will still remain; why is this competition proving so difficult?
After all, the gap in financial resources between Brazil’s clubs and those on the rest of the continent has become a chasm. Last year’s final, for example, was between Atletico Mineiro and Olimpia of Paraguay. The entire wage bill of the Paraguayan club would not even pay for Ronaldinho – but this difference was not visible on the pitch – so much so that the tie was only decided on a penalty shoot out. Although Brazilian teams have won the competition in each of the last four years, they are not dominating the Libertadores as one might expect from a glance at the finances. Indeed, had Atletico keeper Vitor not saved a stoppage time penalty in last year’s quarter final, there would have been no Brazilian participation in the closing stages of the 2013 Libertadores.
In part this can be explained by the inherent difficulty of the Libertadores. Playing away from home will always present problems in such a large continent with so many climatic variations. But it is also impossible not to come to the conclusion that domestic Brazilian football continues to punch beneath its weight.
There was plenty of evidence in last week’s draw between Flamengo and Bolivar. The visiting team were outgunned in technical and physical terms. But tactically they were a surprise. In his first game in charge of the club, Bolivar coach Xavier Azkargorta set up his team to be compact and difficult to play through. A leading Rio football journalist sitting beside me was astonished. “Even a Bolivian team is more modern than we are,” he exclaimed.
It is worth noting that of those last four Brazilian winners of the Libertadores, only one came back from the World Club Cup with the trophy. The others all crawled home with their tail between their legs, trying to hide the humiliation. The exception, of course was the Corinthians of 2012, set up by coach Tite to play in a compact block which seems so hard for other contemporary Brazilian teams to achieve.