Paraguay lead the way in Copa Libertadores group stages as Argentine teams struggle
In a competition as unpredictable as the Copa Libertadores, it is unwise to take too much for granted. At the end of 2006, for example, Internacional of Brazil beat Barcelona to be crowned Club World Champions but were not even among the best 16 teams on their own continent just a few months later as they failed to get out of their group.
This year's Libertadores group stage has now reached the halfway point as all teams have played their three opponents once. So which heavyweight clubs are flirting with early elimination this time? Hint: It includes both of the last two champions.
The bad news for River Plate of Argentina, the reigning champions, is that they are still waiting for their first win. The good news is that they have yet to be defeated. The way they managed to dig themselves out of a hole -- 2-0 down away to Internacional -- earned them a third consecutive draw on Wednesday night. But only after coach Marcelo Gallardo made a bold switch of systems, as his move to a back three paid off. They have plenty to do in the remaining games, though: they lie third in their group, outside the qualification places.
River's great rivals Boca Juniors are not doing much better. True, they are second -- good enough to go through if they can stay there -- but they owe the position to goal difference and the fact that Tolima of Colombia surprisingly let a two-goal lead slip at home to Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia, a side who had not previously scored in the competition. Indeed, Boca's atrocious defending in a 3-0 defeat away to Athletico Paranaense of Brazil shows that they have plenty of work to do.
But not as much as the 2017 champions, Gremio of Brazil -- who narrowly failed to reach last year's final. They have a single point, and a single goal, from their three games. The edge appears to have disappeared from their crisp passing game and coach Renato Portaluppi will have to dig deep. A club idol as player and coach, a statue of Portaluppi was recently unveiled, but a few cracks might appear in its structure if he fails to get Gremio out of the group stage. And that could mean having to win all three of their remaining games.
Atletico Mineiro of Brazil, the 2013 champions, are also in trouble. But it could be much worse. They lost their opening two games, and were astonishingly 2-0 down at half-time at home to Zamora of Venezuela on Wednesday night. A second half comeback brought them a 3-2 win, but they remain down in third place and two of their last three matches are away from home.
So far the fortunes for Brazil's clubs have been mixed: Gremio and Atletico Mineiro may be staring nervously at the table and consulting the calculator; while Internacional, Cruzeiro and Athletico Paranaense top their groups. The six Argentine teams, though, have managed a mere three wins in their 18 matches -- two of them by San Lorenzo, who have been in such poor domestic form. Also disappointing have been the representatives from Colombia and Ecuador, with a single win each from six games.
Three countries have done better than expected in the early exchanges. The Uruguayan duo of Penarol and Nacional have a wealth of tradition, but their glory days are well behind them. Their last titles came in the late 1980s and in the last three decades only one Uruguayan team (Penarol in 2011) have reached the final. Four wins in six games, then, is a very acceptable start, especially as both have beat Brazilian opponents. Penarol's 1-0 win over Flamengo in Rio's mythical Maracana stadium was celebrated with some of the intensity of Uruguay's 1950 World Cup triumph in the same venue.
Little was expected of the Chilean contingent this year -- both because the country has done little in the tournament for years, and because the traditional big two, Universidad de Chile and 1991 champions Colo Colo are not taking part. So far, though, all three representatives -- domestic champions Universidad Catolica, plus Palestino and Universidad Concepcion, are in the fight to reach the round of 16.
The early movers and shakers, though, have come from Paraguay. Only three teams have won all of their games: Cruzeiro of Brazil, plus the Paraguayan pair of Cerro Porteno and Libertad, both of whom have won in Brazil. And Paraguayan league leaders Olimpia also came to the party on Thursday night.
In the final game of the round, with veteran centre forward Roque Santa Cruz breaking the deadlock via a typically emphatic header, they won 3-0 away to Sporting Cristal of Peru. All three Paraguayan clubs now top their groups and their collective performance comprises seven wins, two draws and no defeats, with 15 goals scored and just three conceded.
The group phase is only at the halfway point, but there will surely be a Paraguayan presence when the Copa Libertadores reaches the knockout rounds.