River Plate, Barcelona host Copa Libertadores semis starting Tuesday

Now that the drama of this month's FIFA dates is done and digested, the focus in South America switches to club football.

The Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League, has reached the semifinal stage.

Four teams from three different countries are left to fight for the trophy in what is a special year for the Libertadores.

Previously, the action was crammed into the first half of the year, with occasional brief extensions to allow for World Cups.

This year, though, the Libertadores runs from late January to late November.

Stretching it out has made a difference -- as highlighted by the opening game of the semifinal first legs.

On Tuesday night, River Plate host Lanus in an all-Argentine clash.

At the start of February, these two sides kicked off the domestic season, meeting in La Plata to contest the Argentine Super Cup.

Lanus ran out comfortable winners, striking in the second half to register a 3-0 win.

Eight-and-a-half months later, their side is virtually unchanged; the same group of players, under the same coach (Jorge Almiron) with the same basic idea of play -- an attacking, attractive 4-3-3 formation in which centre forward Jose Sand is backed up by the incisive wing play of Lautaro Acosta and Alejandro Silva.

River Plate still retain the services of coach Marcelo Gallardo. But otherwise, they are much changed for the side beaten so comprehensively in February.

This is easy to explain. The Argentine season runs on the European model, from August until May. In the middle of the year, then, many contracts are up.

Some players are sold and other bought in. River have gone through drastic alterations.

The excellent front partnership of Lucas Alario and Sebastian Driussi is no more.

Both have been sold to Europe. By way of compensation, in have come an experienced trio; striker Ignacio Scocco, international midfielder Enzo Perez and goalkeeper German Lux.

During August's second round in the Libertadores and September's quarterfinals, River frequently came across as a team still in the process of getting to know each other.

They should have had more time to bed in now.

But in one sense, the fundamentals of the match in February still apply; River attack better than they defend -- and much the same applies to Lanus.

The hope, then is for two bright and open matches.

The other semifinal may well be tight. In Wednesday's first leg, Barcelona of Ecuador host Gremio of Brazil. Barcelona have specialised in overcoming Brazilian opposition in this year's competition.

Their model of play is in effect the one which has served Ecuadorian football well in recent times; deep defence coupled with quick and powerful breaks down the flanks.

It is a strategy better suited to away games -- hence the fact that Barcelona have done better on the road than they have in their giant stadium in Guayaquil.

Barcelona, then, have no need to over-commit in the quest for a first leg lead -- especially since their live-wire Uruguayan centre forward Jonathan Alves is suspended and will miss Wednesday's match.

The stakes are high for Gremio, who have played some highly attractive football over the course of the year, but who face the danger of ending the year empty-handed.

They were in contention for the league title until they began picking weakened teams in an effort to concentrate on cups.

But they fell at the semifinal stage of the Brazilian Cup, meaning that their entire year will be defined by events in the Libertadores.

The star man, support striker Luan, is only recently back from injury and may not be fully match fit.

Gremio trust that he will be ready -- and CONMEBOL trust that they have done sufficient groundwork to implement the video referee; VAR comes into effect for these games for the first time in South American football.

The officials have gone through a period of training. But the resource will be new to the players, who may not be familiar with how and when VAR is to be applied.

It is of course, only to be used to deliberate on goals, red card, penalties and player identification and can only be called into action at the request of the officials.

CONMEBOL have said that any player making the square sign with his hands in an attempt to force the application of VAR is open to punishment.

There is scope, then, for extra controversy in this first year of the expanded Copa Libertadores.