Brazilian clubs favourite for Copa Libertadores but have work to do
Not since 2013 (with Atletico Mineiro) has a Brazilian club won the Copa Libertadores -- South America's equivalent of the Champions League -- or even reached the final. But surely this can't continue.
Brazil's clubs are able to pay wages far higher than anywhere else on the continent; big name players from all over South America are flocking to Brazil in increasing numbers and there are no high profile Brazilians playing elsewhere on the continent.
As the group phase of this year's Libertadores moves into its fourth week, the numbers look ominous. So far the Brazilian clubs have played 19 games, winning 12 of them and losing just three -- one of those defeats came in the all-Brazilian clash between Flamengo and Atletico Paranaense; another was suffered by debutants Chapecoense, of whom little is expected after losing almost all their playing and coaching staff in that tragic plane crash last November.
The Brazilians, then, have won nearly two thirds of the games they have played. To put this into perspective, only one other country (Ecuador) can boast clubs who have won more than half of their matches.
The worrying aspect for the rest of the field is that the Brazilian clubs are surely capable of better than they have produced so far. The country's domestic champions are Palmeiras, riding high with a magnificently rebuilt new stadium and backed by a wealthy sponsor. Their squad looks so strong that many of the club's supporters are already taking the Libertadores title for granted, but their two victories have both been won at home with last gasp goals, deep into stoppage time.
Atletico Mineiro also have a fine squad, packed with attacking talent. Their 5-2 win last week at home to little Sport Boys Warnes of Bolivia might look comfortable enough on paper but with 20 minutes to go they were losing 2-1 and contemplating a humiliating defeat.
True, Botafogo and Gremio both have 100 percent records. Botafogo, though, for all their many virtues, are unlikely to win too many points for style. And while Gremio can put together some excellent football, it remains to be seen whether they can sustain it for a full 90 minutes. Last week they played an enchanting first half against Deportes Iquique of Chile, and raced into a 3-0 lead. Come the end, though, they had been pulled back to 3-2 and were glad to hear the final whistle.
So if the Brazilian clubs have room for improvement, why do the numbers suggest so strongly that they are dominant?
One reason is that there are so many of them. The expansion of the competition this year means there are now eight Brazilian clubs in the field of 32. They have so many chances of success.
There is also the relative weakness of the opposition, enhanced this year by the fact that the Mexican clubs have pulled out. River Plate and Lanus look dangerous and Godoy Cruz have started well, but the crisis in Argentine football -- with the domestic season kicking off a full month late -- has clearly had an effect.
Reigning champions Atletico Nacional of Colombia are going through an inevitable transition year -- a consequence of winning last year's title is that so many members of the triumphant team have been sold (four of them to Brazil) and results suffer as they try to rebuild.
New forces have yet to emerge -- though Barcelona of Ecuador have won both their opening two matches, as have Guarani of Paraguay. This Thursday both teams are at home to Brazilian opposition: Barcelona host Botafogo in Guayaquil, while Guarani entertain Gremio in Asuncion. Twenty four hours earlier, another Brazilian pair face potentially difficult away games: Santos against Santa Fe of Colombia and Atletico Mineiro against Libertad of Paraguay.
Come the end of the midweek matches, then, it will be interesting to see if a firm dent has been placed in the suggestions that the 2017 Libertadores will be dominated by Brazil.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.