Copa Libertadores an all-Argentina affair but Copa Sudamericana spotlights Brazil, Colombia
The dramatic Copa Libertadores semifinal between reigning champions Gremio of Brazil and Argentine giants River Plate went to a third leg.
After the first two, in conventional home and away format, River Plate had scraped into the final. Aggregate scores were level at 2-2. But River's late penalty gave them the extra away goal, and a place in the final against historic rivals Boca Juniors. Until, that is, Gremio lodged a complaint.
During the first leg, River coach Marcelo Gallardo was found guilty of not getting his team back on the field in time for the second half. They were a couple of minutes late, and so Gallardo was banned from the return game. It seemed a somewhat harsh punishment -- and Gallardo paid it no attention. He should have had no contact with his players or coaching staff during the second leg. Using a phone to communicate with an assistant was bad enough. Sneaking down into the dressing room to give a halftime talk was a flagrant violation.
Gremio protested -- and if this seems like the action of a sore loser, it is worth highlighting that CONMEBOL's bizarre regulations put the onus of lodging a complaint onto the rival team. And so a third leg was played out in front of the CONMEBOL disciplinary committee in Paraguay's capital of Asuncion.
Gremio hoped to be awarded the game. But it always looked like a forlorn hope. The regulations did not seem to justify it, and the final decision, as expected, was an individual punishment for Gallardo rather than a collective one for River Plate.
And so the Libertadores will have its first ever all-Argentine final.
Last year, both the Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent, came to a conclusion with Brazil vs. Argentina finals. This year, the traditional two powers supplied seven of the Libertadores last eight squads. But it is clear, for the moment, that Argentina are in the lead.
The only previous one-nation finals were all-Brazilian affairs in 2005 and 2006. From then until 2013, there was always a Brazilian team in the final -- with four consecutive winners at the end of the run. But over the last five years, Argentina have supplied half of the finalists, with one each from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico (who no longer take part) and Paraguay.
Whether this Argentine domination is sustainable is open to question. The country's currency has weakened significantly, and many contracts are dollar-linked. The deep squads that River and Boca have assembled this year may not be viable. And Argentina may find it harder to pick up young talent from Colombia -- which, in addition to weakening the Argentine clubs, may strengthen the Colombians.
This is pertinent because, while the focus is on the build up to Saturday's first leg of the Libertadores final, this week also features the first legs of the Sudamericana semis. Argentina might have both of the last two in the Libertadores but it does not have a dog in the race to win the Sudamericana -- which has boiled down to a contest between Brazil and Colombia.
One semifinal is between Atletico Paranaense and Fluminense, two Brazilian clubs currently in the middle of the league table. The other is between Independiente Santa Fe and Atletico Junior, two Colombian sides who went into the Libertadores with high hopes, were eliminated in the group phase and moved into the Sudamericana as a consolation prize. And the biggest prize on offer for winning this competition is that of automatic qualification for next year's Libertadores -- an idea so good that Europe borrowed it.
The clear conclusion, then, is that the strongest leagues in South America belong to Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. They have won the Libertadores in each of the last three years (Atletico Nacional in 2016, Gremio last year and whoever comes on top in the Buenos Aires Superclasico), and with only two exceptions (LDU of Ecuador in 2008, Olimpia of Paraguay in 2002) they have monopolised the title this century.
For the moment, Argentina have the lead, though Brazil should surely be doing better. Colombia are in third place -- but will gain some points if one of their two teams can walk off with this year's Copa Sudamericana.