South America's Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, returns this week in its new format. And as the knockout stage kicks off, the differences kick in.
What has changed is the timing. The competition still features 32 teams in four groups of eight, with the best 16 playing two-legged, home-and-away knockout ties all the way up to and including the final. But now it is stretched out over a much longer time frame.
Previously, the knockout games began straight after the completion of the group phase, with the entire competition crammed into the first few months of the year. Now the completion runs all the way to the end of November, leaving more space for gaps along the way. The group phase, for example, concluded May 25. The first legs in the round of 16 take place Tuesday to Thursday, with the return games five weeks later.
The action gets underway with Tuesday's meeting of Godoy Cruz and Gremio, an Argentina vs. Brazil clash -- which is significant for two reasons.
First of all, the final will likely be between clubs from these two countries. One half of the draw has three clubs from Argentina and one from Brazil (along with two from Bolivia and one each from Ecuador and Paraguay); the other half contains five Brazilian teams and one each from Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay. The Libertadores is always full of surprises, but an Argentina vs. Brazil final looks like the most likely outcome.
There is also considerable scope for a rivalry between the two countries behind the scenes, as the way that the Libertadores has changed clearly benefits the Brazilians. Football in Brazil follows the annual calendar, with a club season that begins in late January and comes to a conclusion in early December -- operating in perfect harmony with the new Libertadores.
Meanwhile, Argentina follows the European season, with a campaign that kicks off in August, takes a high summer break in January and then proceeds through to May or June. Therefore, the new Libertadores is a headache for Argentine clubs.
The domestic season has just come to a close, and some players' contracts have ended. They will be out of practice, with next to no competitive games behind them, when the Libertadores return matches are played in the second week of August. They would clearly favour a year-round Libertadores that gets underway in August and goes through until the following May, and it would appear that they are lobbying for this change.
There are two powerful arguments in their favour. One is that it would allow the season to end with the main event. As it stands, the curtain closer is not the final of the Libertadores, but of the much less important second competition, the Copa Sudamericana. This is because South America needs to elect its champion in time for the Club World Cup in the middle of December.
So the Libertadores ends Nov. 29, with the two legs of the Sudamericana final taking place over the following two weeks. This is unsatisfactory on a number of levels; the basic rules of showmanship are broken by closing with the weaker competition. And even so, fans of the Libertadores winners will still have very little time to plan a trip to cheer on their team in the Club World Cup -- and leaving it so late will inevitably push up the price.
One of the few successes of the global tournament has been the willingness of South American fans to get behind the competition by travelling in numbers. This is now jeopardised.
And, of course, there is the effect of the European summer transfer window, with its potential to carry off the best players in the Libertadores just as the action gets serious. In the current circumstances, South American players are inevitably going to leave. But in an August-to-May format, the selling would not be so disruptive.
River Plate, for example, are losing highly-rated support striker Sebastian Driussi to Zenit Saint Petersburg. But it would seem that the Buenos Aires giants have been working behind the scenes to limit the damage. Originally, the regulations allowed the incorporation of three new players at this stage of the competition. This has suddenly been increased to six.
River, who have been shopping, deny they have influenced this decision. Their opponents on Tuesday, Guarani of Paraguay, are not so sure and are feeling disadvantaged, especially as they have lost their main attacking talent, Nestor Camacho, to local big shots Olimpia.
Some bad feeling between the clubs has developed, so the knockout phase of the Libertadores gets underway on Tuesday with -- in addition to an Argentina vs. Brazil clash -- a Paraguay vs. Argentina match up that could see the action get off to a fiery start.
This week's matches:
Godoy Cruz (Argentina) vs. Gremio (Brazil)
Guarani (Paraguay) vs. River Plate (Argentina)
Atletico Paranaense (Brazil) vs. Santos (Brazil)
Barcelona (Ecuador) vs. Palmeiras (Brazil)
Jorge Wilstermann (Bolivia) vs. Atletico Mineiro (Brazil)
The Strongest (Bolivia) vs. Lanus (Argentina)
Emelec (Ecuador) vs. San Lorenzo (Argentina)
Nacional (Uruguay) vs. Botafogo (Brazil)