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Brazilian clubs have edge in Copa Lib
AROUND THE WORLD ...
Every week brings a fresh reminder of the rise of domestic soccer in Brazil. Big signings draw massive headlines. Clubs reinforce their squads consistently instead of continually shipping their top players out of the country. It isn't just one or two clubs doing the buying - even lowly Grêmio managed to tempt Arsenal misfit André Santos into a loan move over the weekend as part of its recent shopping spree.
Brazil's financial might stands in stark contrast to the troubles afflicting clubs in other parts of South America. So it should come as little surprise that the Copa Libertadores, set to resume this Tuesday, has reflected the increasing distance between Brazilian clubs and the rest of the continent.
A competition once ruled by Argentina and shared by other interlopers along the way now lays firmly in Brazilian hands. The past three champions – Internacional (2010), Santos (2011) and Corinthians (2012) – all hail from Brazil. Unfortunately for their opponents, the strength of the Brazilian contenders suggests a fourth consecutive crown will end up there as well.
Corinthians will mount a vigorous defense of the title secured by defeating Boca Juniors 2-0 during the second leg in São Paulo last year. No team has won consecutive tournaments since Boca retained the title in 2001, but Corinthians can count on Brazil international Alexandre Pato – a recent capture from AC Milan – to help fuel their attempts to retain the crown in 2013 and prolong their perch atop South American football.
Other Brazilian sides are there to pick up the slack if Corinthians stumbles. Fluminense won the Serie A title last year with a group – including Brazil forward Fred – that remains largely intact for this challenge. Atlético Minero will lean on the resurgent Ronaldinho to fuel its push. Palmeiras suffered through the indignity of relegation and the subsequent departure of several key players, but the recent loan capture of FC Porto striker Kléber suggests the club has not cast aside its Libertadores hopes just yet. Grêmio and São Paulo navigated through the first stage to advance to the group phase and round out the delegation. And, as André Santos' arrival indicates, Grêmio – winners in 1983 and 1995 – has reinforced considerably in the past few weeks to gear up for the challenge ahead.
The structure of the competition ensures this edition of the Libertadores will not turn into a one-country show. Brazil may contribute six of the 32 teams into the group stage with Corinthians included as the holders, but four of those entrants – Atlético Minero and São Paulo in Group 2 and Fluminense and Gremio in Group 4 – share just two groups. Even if all six clubs progress, they must quickly confront the prospect of facing another Brazilian side at any point during the knockout stage (including a guaranteed meeting in the semifinals if two Brazilian sides reach that point).
All of the talk surrounding the Brazilian clubs diminishes the tangible threats offered by sides elsewhere on the continent. Boca Juniors remains the most prominent of the non-Brazilian contenders after reaching the final last year. The return of Carlos Bianchi and Juan Román Riquelme adds a little sizzle to Boca's charge for a record-tying seventh title. Fellow Argentinian sides Arsenal, Newell's Old Boys, Tigre (beaten finalists in the Copa Sudamericana in December) and Vélez Sársfield (quarterfinalists a year ago) all harbor aspirations of a deep run. The likes of Millonarios (the Copa Sudamericana semifinalists signed Seattle forward Fredy Montero on loan for this journey), Libertad and Universidad de Chile (semifinalists a year ago, though weakened now) will all seek to thrive on the continental stage once again this year.
The two Mexican entrants will likely set their sights on a spot in the knockout rounds after watching Club Léon fall to Deportes Iquique on penalties in the first round. Club Tijuana enters the competition in good domestic form and with a conservative mentality that should bode well for this stage. Antonio Mohamed's side faces a difficult task to claim one of the two berths out of Group 5 with Corinthians and Millonarios both placed in that pot, though. Toluca received a kinder draw with Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Nacional in Group 1, but veteran boss Enrique Meza must steer his side back on course after an indifferent start to the Clausura in order to secure safe progress.
Every club in the tournament – even those relative minnows unlikely to survive past the group stage – will hope for similar success at the outset, but the rigors of the competition will cull many of them in short order. The onus falls on the remaining few to fare well enough to halt the Brazilian clubs' recent dominance at some point along the way.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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