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Copa Libertadores weighted against weaker teams but will there be any shocks?

Flamengo players celebrate with the Copa Libertadores trophy after beating River Plate in the final.
Flamengo are the Copa Liberatores champions.

Less than two months after the cries of the crowd from the 2019 Libertadores final have died down, it is time for the 2020 version to get underway.

It was on Nov. 23 when Flamengo of Brazil struck twice right at the end to steal the title from under the noses of Argentina's River Plate. The game took place in Lima, in the stadium of Universitario -- who kick off this year's action on Tuesday night then they travel to Venezuela to take on Carabobo.

It is the opening game in a convoluted, six week qualification phase. The real thing, with the group games, gets going on March 3. Four places in the field of 32 are still up for grabs and a total of 19 teams are in the race to fill them. The majority are not in action until next month.

Until then the first phase features three home and away matches, with six clubs from the countries considered to be the weakest in the field -- one each from Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine either Carabobo or Universitario making much of an impact on the competition. The Venezuelans have played in the Libertadores twice before -- falling in the qualifying round in both 2017 and 2018 -- as did Universitario, who made it all the way to the round of 16 a decade ago, but who otherwise have a dismal recent record. Clubs from both Peru and Venezuela are consistently among the weakest in the competition. Since 2010, both nations have only managed to get a single team out of the group phase and into the round of 16. 

The Libertadores, though, is not as predictable as Europe's Champions League, where the qualifying rounds are mere exotic preamble to fill the space until the big guns arrive on the scene. There is always the chance of a surprise -- and at least two of the clubs in action this week will hope to supply it.

Two countries who have been punching above their weight in continental competition are Paraguay and Ecuador. Guarani of Paraguay reached the semi finals in 2015 and on Wednesday they travel to Bolivia to face San Jose. The winner will meet Brazilian giants Corinthians in the next qualifying phase. This will bring back happy memories for the Paraguayans: they beat Corinthians home and away in that 2015 campaign. Should they meet again in February, Guarani will hope to have picked up enough momentum to spring an early season shock.

Also on Wednesday, Barcelona of Ecuador make the long journey south to face Progresso of Uruguay. From Guayaquil on the Pacific coast, Barcelona are a big club. They reached the semifinals in 2017, where they fell to eventual champions Gremio, but did manage to beat them in Brazil. They will consider themselves favourites to get past Progresso, and then Peru's Sporting Cristal in the next round. The presence of Barcelona is the strongest argument for the relevance to the competition of this first qualifying round.

But can such a club go all the way and win the competition? Another Ecuadorian club nearly did so in 2016. Independiente del Valle came out of the qualifying round and marched on to the final, narrowly falling to Atletico Nacional of Colombia.

But there have been some significant changes since then. First, the competition is longer. Rather than being squeezed into the first six months, the Libertadores now takes up almost the entire year. This has elongated the qualification process -- three stages rather than the one that Independiente del Valle had to go through. And the longer the competition, the better the chances of the richest clubs, who can re-enforce their squads during the course of the campaign.

Since the change was implemented in 2017 the later stages of the Libertadores have been almost entirely dominated by Brazil and Argentina. And this year the balance has been further tipped in their favour. Players are no longer 'cup-tied.' They can now play for two clubs in the same version of the competition. So someone who stars for, say, Barcelona in the early stages can now be picked up by a wealthier club for the knockout matches.

The scales, then, have been weighted against the weaker teams. But the likes of Barcelona and Guarani will still take the field dreaming that the days of the big South American surprise are far from over.

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