Copa Libertadores wide open as heavyweights Gremio miss out

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There was a nasty surprise for Gremio in the qualifying round of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League.

The Brazilian giants won the trophy in 2017. They were semifinalists in 2018 and 2019, and reached last year's quarterfinals. They are undoubtedly Libertadores heavyweights.

But they lost home and away against little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador -- an outcome all the more remarkable because Gremio's "away" game was on neutral ground. The two sides first met in Paraguay after Ecuadorian health authorities refused to let the match go ahead at Quito. Independiente del Valle, then, did not have the undoubted advantage of the altitude of Quito. No matter. They were clearly the better side in two engrossing ties, and won them both 2-1.

When the group phase of the competition kicks off this week, Gremio will not be present.

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For all their tiny size, Independiente del Valle are no slouches. They are a club dedicated to the development of young talent, and their model has proved extremely successful over the last few years. They were beaten finalists in the Libertadores in 2016, and won the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent, three years later. But they are undoubtedly a much smaller outfit than Gremio, operating on a much smaller budget. And yet they won. The essence of sport can be celebrated in the Libertadores in a way that the big fish of the European game seem anxious to abolish.

Of the 32 clubs going into the group phase of the Libertadores, 15 have already won the title. There is at least one former champion in all eight of the groups, and a couple of groups even contain three former winners. The pool of potential challengers is much bigger on this side of the Atlantic. Those disillusioned with current developments in Europe might do well to spend more time following the Copa Libertadores.

That being said, there is no doubt that South America's premier cup competition has become more predictable in recent years. The 2017 campaign is a clear marker. Up until that point, the action was squeezed into the first few months of the year. From 2017 on, the competition has rumbled through all the way from late January to late November -- with adjustments made this year and last for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The longer timeframe has clearly benefited the wealthier clubs. The 2016 final pitted a team from Colombia against an opponent from Ecuador. Since then, though, Brazil and Argentina have exercised complete domination.

The last two champions were from Brazil. In their contrasting styles, both 2019 winners Flamengo and current holders Palmeiras look strong once more, although both have problems to resolve. Flamengo have wonderful attacking options but have so far been unable to replace centre-back Pablo Mari, who was sold to Arsenal. They can be vulnerable to the counter-attack. Palmeiras have a low risk model, all deep defence and fast breaks. They will surely need to add to their attacking repertoire if they are to retain their title.

Last year's beaten finalists Santos have an attractive young side, but it may be asking too much to expect them to repeat the heroics of 2020. Sao Paulo, under new Argentine coach Hernan Crespo, have this time been drawn in what looks like an easy group, and have time to build up momentum. Atletico Mineiro have re-hired Cuca, who coached them to the title eight years ago, and invested in an interesting squad.

Internacional have hired Miguel Angel Ramirez, the Spaniard who did so well with Independiente del Valle, and should be a fascinating watch. Fluminense would not seem to be among the favourites, but the beauty of the Libertadores is that there is always room for a surprise.

There is no surprise, though, that the challenge from Argentina is headed by River Plate and Boca Juniors. River are still coached by Marcelo Gallardo, who builds and rebuilds attractive sides again and again. He is currently trying to replace playmaker Nacho Fernandez, who went to Brazil to join Atletico Mineiro. In league play, River have been mixing extravagant attacking displays with plenty of occasions when they have struggled to score the first goal. Boca have been even more mixed. In early March they had a game when everything clicked, and ran up an extraordinary 7-1 win away to Velez Sarsfield. Injuries and loss of form have prevented them from finding the blend again, and coach Miguel Angel Russo has been under pressure.

Velez will be interesting, full of promising attackers but alarmingly open at the back. Little Defensa y Justicia have taken huge strides over the last few years. They are reigning champions of the Sudamericana, and last week deservedly beat Palmeiras to win the Supercopa. They press well and move the ball smartly, but it is hard to see them having the strength in depth to go all the way. And the other teams from Argentina, Racing and Argentinos Juniors, are unlikely to launch a challenge.

So if the Brazil-Argentina monopoly is to be broken, where might the threat come from?

Ecuador has been performing strongly in recent years. As well as Independiente del Valle, Liga de Quito (LDU) are serious contenders who came very close to eliminating Santos last year. A repeat of the 2008 title might be too much to expect, but they go into the competition with optimism, as do Barcelona of Guayaquil.

The Paraguayans so often punch above their weight, and the traditional big two, Olimpia and Cerro Porteno are both back in the hunt this time. Paraguay, though, did lose both its teams in the qualifying round -- unlike Colombia, the only country not to have a single team eliminated. Since 2016, the Colombian performance in the competition has been very poor. But that may change this year. Atletico Nacional are looking very strong, and well coached by Alexandre Guimaraes. America of Cali will also want to build on the promise they showed last year.

Chilean champions Universidad Catolica, now under Gus Poyet, will be an interesting watch, and Nacional of Uruguay should be competitive. And backed by the extreme altitude of La Paz, The Strongest of Bolivia may inconvenience a few along the way. Sporting Cristal hope to improve the dismal recent record of Peruvian teams, while Deportivo Tachira and Deportivo La Guaira of Venezuela cling to the hope that this is the Copa Libertadores, where dreams can still come true.