Copa Libertadores providing drama galore, but the big clubs cruising toward quarterfinals

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With the first legs completed in the opening round of South America's Copa Libertadores, a chance remains that Brazil will supply six of the quarterfinalists. There is also a possibility that four might be from Argentina. Both cannot happen.

There are only eight slots available. Next week's return matches will determine the balance of forces between the continent's big two, who have carved up the competition in recent years. There is the guarantee of two Argentines in the last eight -- who, as the luck of the draw has it, will face each other in the quarterfinals.

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A pair of ties in this round are all-Argentine affairs, and both hang in the balance after the first leg. Talleres of Cordoba and Colon of Santa Fe drew 1-1 on Wednesday. Next week either Colon will equal their all time best performance in the competition or Talleres will make it further than they have ever been before.

The glamour all-Argentine match up is between Velez Sarsfield and River Plate. Velez, who rescued themselves after a dreadful start to the group phase, won their home leg 1-0. It is now River's turn to save themselves. Wednesday's return game is a huge occasion for River coach Marcelo Gallardo, who has accumulated frustrations against Brazilian opposition since taking the club to the title in 2018. Elimination at the hands of Velez, though, would probably be the biggest frustration of all -- and would also be a melancholic farewell for striker Julian Alvarez, who is off to Manchester City after the game. This, then, is bound to be a high pressure, high octane 90 minutes in Buenos Aires.

The two clashes between clubs from Brazil and Argentina stand all square -- with the Argentines perhaps seeing themselves as narrow favourites now that they will be enjoying home advantage. Corinthians missed a penalty last Tuesday at home to Boca Juniors. But the Sao Paulo giants created little. Boca had the best of the few chances, and a goalless draw was probably a fair result. The continent will come to a standstill on Tuesday for the second leg between two of South America's most popular teams, and will so much at stake there is bound to be plenty of drama, possibly even from a penalty shoot out.

Up in northeastern Brazil, Fortaleza fought out a pulsating 1-1 draw with Estudiantes. Under impressive Argentine coach Juan Pablo Vojvoda, the adventurous Fortaleza side have been thoroughly enjoying their debut Libertadores campaign. They were stifled by Ricardo Zielinski's Estudiantes, pragmatic and with flashes of talent. With Estudiantes so strong at home, Fortaleza are going to have to come up with something special in La Plata next Thursday if they want to keep enjoying their continental adventure.

But even if things go wrong next week for Corinthians and Fortaleza, there will surely be a very strong Brazilian presence in the quarterfinals. The country's big three all look well-placed. Palmeiras, champions in the last two years, will certainly still be around to defend their title. In the characteristic style of Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira, they produced the performance of the round to win 3-0 away to Paraguay's Cerro Porteno.

The Paraguayans did not play badly. But were unable to lay a glove on Palmeiras, who waited patiently for an hour to press home their superiority. Ferreira has done special work developing Rony, transforming him from a talented but erratic winger into a dangerous central striker. Rony's two goals set Palmeiras on the way to a win that in the end could hardly have been more convincing.

Flamengo, last year's runners-up, also came back with an away win -- though their 1-0 triumph against Tolima of Colombia was not nearly as convincing. In what could be his last game before a reluctant return to Manchester United, midfielder Andreas Pereira scored early with a wonderful strike. But for the next few minutes the Flamengo goal led a charmed life as their defence was pierced again and again.

By halftime Tolima were unlucky not to be ahead, let alone losing. The Brazilians preserved their lead better after the break by defending deeper, and while the Colombians are dangerous it would be a major upset if Tolima were to come out on top next Wednesday in the Maracana.

It would probably be even more of an upset if Emelec of Ecuador are able to win in Brazil against Atletico Mineiro, even though the first leg finished 1-1. The gulf between the two sides would seem to be enormous. It certainly looked that way in the first half in Guayaquil last Tuesday, when with Hulk giving the side a splendid platform from centre forward, Atletico were well worth their lead. Game management let them down after the break, when they conceded a silly penalty and had a man unnecessarily sent off.

Even so, Atletico would have come home with a win had Hulk not had a penalty well saved by Pedro Ortiz, and are overwhelming favourites to complete the job in front of their own fans on Tuesday.

This would seem to lave the rest of the continent with just one opportunity to break the Brazil-Argentina monopoly. Libertad of Paraguay came back from Brazil with chances of a quarterfinal place intact. They lost to Luiz Felipe Scolari's Athletico Paranaense, but only by a margin of 2-1. The sides already met this year in the group stage, where Libertad won the home game 1-0. A similar scoreline will take the tie to penalties. Anything less and the Brazil-Argentina stranglehold would seem to be complete.