Copa Libertadores group stage concludes with drama across South America

The very first game in the history of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, was in April 1960 when Penarol of Uruguay routed Bolivia's Jorge Wilstermann by the crushing margin of 7-1. This week, the Bolivians got some revenge.

In the last round of the group phase, Penarol and Wilstermann were in opposition once more; only this time they were almost 1000 miles apart. Both teams were in the same group and, with Brazil's Athletico Paranaense having already made sure of qualification, were fighting for a place in the knockout stage.

Penarol did their part, coming from behind to beat Athletico 3-2. It looked good enough for advancement, only for a late goal from Jorge Wilstermann at Colo Colo of Chile to spoil things. Wilstermann had not won an away game in the group phase of the Libertadores this century, but an 88th-minute goal did the trick. They go through, Penarol go out.

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Elsewhere, there was an even bigger shock. Wilstermann reached the quarterfinals in 2017, but Delfin of Ecuador have no pedigree in the competition, with this only the third campaign for the team from the coastal city of Manta. They had never got beyond the group stage before, and looked on course to exit early again when picking up just one point from their first four games.

But having beaten Defensa y Justicia on Matchday 5, Delfin entered this week knowing they had hope. They had to win away to three-times champions Olimpia of Paraguay, who went into the competition with real hopes of making progress and only needed a draw to go into the last 16. However, a late goal from Delfin, as well as another Defensa defeat, sealed a surprise second place.

For all Delfin's lack of tradition, there is one sense in which their qualification is not a shock. Ecuadorian clubs have been punching above their weight in recent years and a trio have qualified this time around; Delfin join 2008 champions LDU and reigning holders of the Copa Sudamericana Independiente del Valle.

Some of Ecuador's neighbours, meanwhile, are performing badly. The most puzzling case is that of Colombia, with a strong footballing tradition and a population almost three times bigger. Atletico Nacional of Medellin won the Libertadores title in 2016, but since the country has only managed to qualify one team for the knockout stages. This was Colombia's third washout in four years.

Peru's recent record is nothing short of a disaster -- it is seven straight years since any team got out of the group stage. America de Cali and Independiente Medellin managed to lose -- heavily in many cases -- 10 of the 12 matches they played. It was a similar story for Chile, the fifth in six years and surely a consequence of poor youth development.

For the fourth straight year, and the 10th in the last 11, the participation of Venezuela ended at the group stage, although Estudiantes de Merida and Caracas can look back on their campaign with a sense of pride. Interesting players are being produced, although very few of them stay long in their domestic league.

Caracas very nearly managed to sneak through and started the last game -- at Boca Juniors -- level on points with Libertad of Paraguay, who were at home to bottom-of-the-table Medellin from Colombia. Libertad took an early lead, and, with Caracas 3-0 down at half-time, seemed to be safe.

But an astonishing second-half collapse saw Libertad go 4-1 down, leaving them level with Caracas on points and goal difference, but on their way out of the competition based on total goals scored. A late Sebastian Ferreira goal spared the Colombian side's blushes and saw them join compatriots Guarani in the last 16, but few teams have ever qualified in such an embarrassing manner.

Along with Wilstermann, the Paraguayan duo and the trio from Ecuador are the big guns from the three traditional giants; Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina have won 52 of the 60 Libertadores titles.

The last Uruguayan winners were Nacional in 1988, while the Argentine trio of River Plate, Boca Juniors and Racing all have titles to their name and, of the six-strong Brazilian contingent (Palmeiras, Santos, Gremio, Internacional and reigning champions Flamengo are the others), only Athletico Paranaense have yet to be proclaimed champions.

Friday's draw saw three Argentina-Brazil showdowns, with Racing paired with holders Flamengo, Boca against Internacional and River Plate meeting Athletico PR.

Elsewhere, Libertad and Jorge Wilstermann will play each other, while Guarani take on Gremio, LDU Quito face Santos, it's Independiente del Valle against Nacional and Delfin vs. Palmeiras.

The Libertadores' final stages begin in late November and run until the end of January. There will be plenty of interest in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia, but none at all in Colombia, Chile, Venezuela and Peru.