Copa Sudamericana's opening round highlighted by Santiago vs. Libertad

Europe plays its two continental competitions simultaneously; the Champions League and the Europa League are both well into the qualifying rounds, and will come to a climax at the end of the season in a little over nine months' time.

South America does it differently. The first half of the year is set aside for the main event, the Copa Libertadores, with the second string competition, the Copa Sudamericana, kicking off this week and ending in early December.

Arguments can be made in favour of both types of scheduling. Europe ensures that its principal attraction, the Champions League, is live throughout the season. South America, meanwhile, ensures that its second competition is not as over-shadowed as the Europa League.

While the Copa Sudamericana is running, it is the only show in town.

It is, though, mainly there to fill a hole. The Sudamericana was swiftly invented in 2002 when an economic crisis forced the scrapping of the competitions which had previously been played in the second half of the year, the Copa Mercosur in the south of the continent and the Merconorte in the north.

A total of 48 clubs from the 10 South American nations take part in the competition. The idea is to spread around the opportunity to participate in international competition, so most countries ensure that the places go to teams which failed to make it to this year's Libertadores.

There is some overlap, though. Eight of the field also featured in the Libertadores -- including River Plate, who last week won that title. Back in December they also won the previous Sudamericana, and qualify for this year's version as reigning champions. But they will not be in action in the competition for some time. Last year's winners go straight into the last 16.

Before that stage is reached, the field of 48 has to be whittled down. The format of the competition betrays its lowly status in comparison with the continent's main event. Unlike the Libertadores, there is no group stage. It is home and away knock out from start to end, and everything has been done to keep the cost down.

The 8 Brazilian clubs compete against themselves, as do the 6 remaining Argentines. That takes place in the second round -- meaning that half the places in the last 16 are reserved for clubs from South America's big two.

This week clubs from the rest of the continent start the battle for the other eight slots. In this first round, which concludes next week, the games are regionalised. In the south there are matches between clubs from Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay. While to the north the matchups feature rivals from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.

These are some of the potential highlights from the next few days:

Though their name suggests a location in the capital, Santiago Wanderers are in fact from Valparaiso, the port city an hour outside Santiago, Chile. It is where David Pizarro began his career -- and where, after more than a decade and a half in Europe, he has returned to wind down his playing days. Will he be able to impose his quality on robust and experienced opponents?

These two were surprise semifinalists in the 2014 Libertadores, whose momentum was interrupted when they failed to qualify for this year's version of the tournament. Bolivar have managed to retain more of the team from that successful campaign, and the advantage of the extreme altitude of La Paz in next week's return match could tip the balance their way -- unless Defensor can really impose themselves on Wednesday's match.

These are two attractive teams coached by centre-backs who enjoyed long international careers. Alexis Mendoza, a former club idol, is in charge of Junior while Melgar are coached by Juan Reynoso, a former stalwart of the Peruvian national team.

Another point in common is that both teams play in magnificent settings; Junior, from Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast, have the highly impressive Metropolitano stadium. And Melgar, from Arequipa in the south of Peru, play their matches in the shadow of the stunning El Misti volcano.

Junior have some interesting creative talent, notably Michael Ortega and the teenage Jarlan Barrera, cousin of the great Carlos Valderrama. Melgar have just lost two of the their stars; centre-back Carlos Ascues, so impressive in the Copa America, has gone to Wolfsburg in Germany, while perky little striker Raul Ruidiaz has returned to Universitario of Lima.