Brazil-Argentina dominance continues in Copa Libertadores

In 2016, the last time the Copa Libertadores was crammed into the first half of the year, the final was between clubs from Colombia and Ecuador. Since then, with the action extended the length of the calendar year, Brazil and Argentina have provided all the finalists, almost all of the semifinalists, and, this year, all but four of the last 16 who go into next week's draw for the start of the knockout rounds.

Six teams each from Brazil and Argentina made their way safely out of the group stage, which finished on Thursday after six frenetic weeks. Only one representative of the big two failed to make the cut: last year's runners up Santos of Brazil, who have been beset by financial problems and fell victim to the fine form of Barcelona of Ecuador, who topped a group which also included Boca Juniors.

All three Ecuadorian teams had their moments, with both Liga de Quito (LDU) and Independiente del Valle finishing their groups in a respectable, if slightly disappointing third place. This continues the trend of the last few years, where amid the Brazil-Argentina domination, two of South America's smaller nations have consistently punched above their weight.

One is Ecuador, and the other is Paraguay, whose traditional big two managed to book their slots in the final week. Cerro Porteno did so in relative comfort. Needing to avoid defeat at home to America of Colombia they scored early and sat on their lead.

Three-time champions Olimpia, meanwhile, had a much more dramatic passage into the round of 16. At home to Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela, they needed to win by a four-goal margin. The Venezuelans had won their previous game 7-2 and were full of confidence, but on one of those great Libertadores nights, tradition counted. Olimpia chipped away at their task, and were three goals up soon after half-time.

Tachira scored, but then had their captain and key defensive midfielder Francisco Flores sent off. Olimpia hit back and scored twice in two minutes to reach their four-goal margin. But Tachira threw on two substitutes who instantly combined to pull back what seemed like a vital goal. Then, inside the last 10 minutes, Olimpia's Richard Ortiz blasted home from the edge of the area to complete the 6-2 scoreline and send his side through.

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The last place in the round of 16 went to Universidad Catolica of Chile. Coached by former Tottenham and Chelsea star Gus Poyet, Catolica got off to a dreadful start, but stormed home by winning three of their last four matches, rounding off with a decisive 2-0 triumph over Atletico Nacional of Colombia. In sparkling form in the qualifying rounds, 2016 champions Atletico Nacional scored six goals in their first two group-stage matches, and at one point were looking like interesting outsiders for a title challenge. But they suffered a collapse in form and confidence, and failed to manage a single goal in their last four games.

All four Colombian sides were eliminated. Clearly, they suffered the impact of the wave of social unrest in their country, which prevented them from playing some of their matches at home. But this is the third year in a row -- and the fourth in the last five -- that Colombia has suffered a group-stage wipeout, so there are obviously deeper factors at work.

Junior of Barranquilla, though, only have themselves to blame. In their group, Argentina's River Plate, rushing players back from COVID-19, went down 3-1 at home to Fluminense of Brazil. This meant that Junior could eliminate the Buenos Aires giants, one of the strongest teams in the continent over recent years, with a win against fellow Colombians Santa Fe.

On paper, Junior were the away side, but the match was being played at a neutral venue in Ecuador. Santa Fe had nothing to play for, yet Junior could not score against them. There were shots against the post, cleared off the line, near misses ... and no goals. River Plate survived and can now regroup in the knockout rounds.

Just five of South America's 10 countries, then, are represented in the round of 16. As well as Colombia, there were wipeouts for Peru (for the eighth successive year), Venezuela (for the fifth and the 11th in the last 12), Uruguay and Bolivia.

In the case of Bolivia, things are even more serious. Before the end of May, international competition has already ended for their clubs -- all of whom have not only been knocked out of the Libertadores, but also of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent.

The Sudamericana is also down to its last 16 -- made up of its eight group winners, plus the eight teams who finished third in the Libertadores groups. In this competition, the Brazil-Argentina dominance is less pronounced: with four and three representatives each, they supply less than half of the teams involved in a competition that still features clubs from eight different nations. Indeed, the main point of interest in the Sudamericana is that the closing stages are more likely to include clubs from a wider pool of countries, though last year's final ended up as an all-Argentine affair.

The five-year period of Brazil-Argentina control over the Libertadores must surely be giving food for thought. One conclusion is that, even with the problem of the vast distances involved, some kind of Pan-American Club competition, pitting South Americans against rivals from Mexico and MLS will surely start to look attractive.