Brazilian clubs dominating as Copa Libertadores heads into quarterfinals

After winning Olympic gold in Japan on Saturday, Dani Alves will be expected to take the field on Tuesday in the quarterfinal of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League.

It is not certain that he will play -- relations between Alves and Sao Paulo are strained at the moment on the subject of unpaid wages. But the club's supporters will certainly be expecting him to feature in the club's biggest game of the year so far -- and a local derby to boot. The opponents are reigning champions Palmeiras, who may well include Gabriel Menino, teammate and reserve to Alves in the Olympic squad.

Under Argentine coach Hernan Crespo, Sao Paulo ended a long wait for a title earlier this year by winning the local state championship, where they overcame Palmeiras, but this is on a different level. Sao Paulo's triumphs in the 1990s have given the club a special relationship with the Libertadores, while Abel Ferreira's combative, organised and very competitive Palmeiras will not give up their crown without a fight.

- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Vickery: Cunha's Olympic breakout better than winning gold

These two legs -- the return game is at the stadium of Palmeiras next Tuesday -- will almost certainly not be pretty. The depth of local rivalry means that they may well generate more heat than light. But even without the presence of fans they should be occasions of memorable intensity.

And there is, of course, the certainty of one Brazilian team in the semifinals. Indeed, there is more than a possibility that all four semi finalists will come from Brazil.

The country provided five of the last eight teams left standing. It would have been six if Internacional turned superiority into goals and won a penalty shootout against Olimpia of Paraguay.

The previous round -- wedged between the Copa America and the Olympics -- gave the Brazilian teams an insane advantage. They were in full competitive rhythm, while everyone else was still in preseason. In effect, the Brazilian teams were handsomely rewarded for having a club calendar that does not respect FIFA dates.

It was all so unnecessary. There is a two-month gap between the semifinals, in late September, and the final at the end of November. There was no need to rush the start of the knockout phase in July.

Given such a scenario, it was hardly a surprise when the Brazilians qualified em masse. They already have an edge in financial firepower, made very clear by the meeting of Atletico Mineiro and Argentina's River Plate.

Atletico have the veteran Hulk, enjoying such a late career flowering at centre-forward that some have been arguing in favour of his return to the national team. They also have Eduardo Vargas from Chile's Copa America squad, Jefferson Savarino from Venezuela's and midfielder Alan Franco from Ecuador's. And then there are a couple of Argentines -- Matias Zaracho and, especially, playmaker Nacho Fernandez.

Until the end of last year, Fernandez was a vital part of Marcelo Gallardo's River side. But he has been lured north, and River have not been the same side without him. Atletico go into the clash as favourites, and it will be interesting to see what the ever astute Gallardo can come up with in difficult circumstances.

Despite a thumping home defeat in the Brazilian league on Sunday, the first under new coach Renato Portaluppi, Flamengo are overwhelming favourites against Olimpia. The Paraguayans will need all of their renowned resilience to hold Flamengo's fantastic four of Gabriel Barbosa, Bruno Henrique, Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Everton Ribeiro. They can be vulnerable against the counter-attack -- the side that won the title in 2019 have never adequately replaced Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari. And Olimpia coach Sergio Orteman has lowered the age of his team during the competition, coming to the conclusion after a 6-1 drubbing by Internacional in the group stage that hard running would be needed to halt the Brazilians. A Paraguayan win, then, would be a major surprise.

And the action comes to a close on Thursday with the meeting of the only two teams left standing who have yet to win the title -- though both Fluminense of Brazil and Barcelona of Ecuador have made it all the way to the final.

Fluminense have a blend of veterans -- 2014 World Cup centre-forward Fred and 40-year-old playmaker Nene -- with the latest products of the club's successful youth development structure. And Barcelona are especially interesting. Without the advantage of altitude -- they are from the port of Guayaquil -- they are the first side from outside Brazil and Argentina to reach the quarters for the second time since the introduction of the year long format in 2017. And they also have a splendid recent record against Brazilian opponents. Their success is based on a model of play characteristic in recent times of Ecuadorian football, which has been punching much above its weight. They use the full width of the pitch, using athletic full-backs and wingers, and have a talented playmaker -- either Damian Diaz or Gabriel Cortez -- to pull the strings. They can be attractive to watch, though they may well struggle to deal with the Fluminense counter-attack. But it will be fascinating to see whether the South American Barcelona can earn some good headlines by crashing the Brazilian party.