Boca Juniors, Palmeiras provide rare Copa Libertadores group stage treat
In the last decade six teams have won Europe's Champions League. And from a pool of 40, 15 clubs have made it through to the semifinals. This astonishing pattern would seem likely to be repeated this season, as Roma and Sevilla are the only ones who could add their name to the list of semifinalists, which seems unlikely after last week's action.
The Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are well placed to reach yet another semifinal -- they have appeared in seven in the last 10 years. Bayern Munich, who have reached four of the last six years, also seem poised to get there once more.
It is a very different state of affairs in South America's equivalent competition, the Copa Libertadores. The last 10 years have offered 10 different champions and a grand total of 32 semifinalists.
The contrast is not hard to explain. The big European clubs buy talent, retain their key players and adding new stars to their squads. They are able to build on their success and stay at the top.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, things are in a permanent state of flux. The best players are forever being sold, and success puts them right in the shop window. After winning a major title, a team is broken up, ushering in a phase of transition, while results suffer.
No one has retained the Libertadores title since Argentine giants Boca Juniors managed the feat at the start of the century -- a period when they had some epic duels with Palmeiras of Brazil.
Palmeiras were the 1999 champions. Boca beat them on penalties to win the title the following year, then beat them again -- again on penalties -- in the 2001 semifinal. They meet once more on Wednesday. The only Libertadores game to be played this week, it is a clash sufficiently glamorous to warrant the attention of the entire continent.
Boca Juniors are the only club to have reached the semifinals in three of the last 10 years -- an achievement all the more impressive when their victory the previous season is factored in. They are the reigning Argentine champions, and with the domestic season coming to a close, are well set to retain their title.
Palmeiras have not always been so dominant, but the Sao Paulo club -- like Boca a product of Italian immigration -- have plenty of past tradition and many reasons for optimism. Their entirely rebuilt new stadium is generally considered to be the most impressive of all Brazil's new grounds -- and it is proving lucrative. Moreover, the club can count on a wealthy sponsor and has assembled a squad of enviable depth.
For a while Palmeiras were swimming in difficult waters, dropping occasionally to the second division. Now they are back and promising to be bigger than ever. As Brazilian cup winners in 2015 and league champions the following year, their sights are set much higher.
They have also made a fine start to the Libertadores campaign. Their first-week, 3-0 win away to Junior of Colombia was probably the outstanding result of the competition so far, and they followed it up with a routine 2-0 win at home to Peru's Alianza Lima.
Boca have not been quite so eye-catching; they drew 0-0 away to Alianza, and their 1-0 win at home to Junior was a scratchy affair. But they, like their opponent, have yet to concede a goal in the competition, and their pedigree is beyond dispute. So in their splendid new arena, Palmeiras against Boca Juniors is about as mouthwatering as it gets in the group phase of the Copa Libertadores.
Added spice is provided by the probable return of Boca's Carlos Tevez from injury. Tevez is a Boca legend -- but also has idol status at Corinthians, the historic rivals of Palmeiras, where he spent a short but successful spell before moving to England in 2006.
In truth, Boca have not found it easy to re-integrate Tevez this year since his return from China. The team's form has been some way short of their displays towards the end of last year, but the return of Tevez will be a welcome morale boost, especially after the weekend's shock home defeat to humble Defensa y Justicia.
Palmeiras, though, suffered a more painful reverse in front of their own fans on Sunday. The Sao Paulo State title was at stake. In the first leg of the final they went to the stadium of Corinthians and came back with a 1-0 win. But they lost the return game by the same margin, seeing the title slip away in a penalty shootout.
There could be no better way to recover from local defeat than coming out on top in a battle for continental supremacy. Palmeiras will seek to avenge those defeats of 2000 and 2001, and do it in a style befitting the South American equivalent of a clash between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.