Palemeiras and Atletico Mineiro faced each other in the Brazilian Championship at the weekend. They could be on course for another meeting in the alternate Brazilian Championship, otherwise known as the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League.
The semifinal places will be decided this week, and there is a distinct possibility that all four will go to teams from Brazil.
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There is the absolute certainty of one, courtesy of an all-Brazilian quarterfinal. Holders Palmeiras drew 1-1 away from home in last week’s first leg against local rivals Sao Paulo, and a tense return game is coming up on Tuesday.
And they will almost certainly be joined by 2019 champions Flamengo, who won their first leg 4-1 away to Olimpia of Paraguay. As they go in search of a footballing miracle in the second leg, Olimpia are in a state of some disarray. After another defeat in the league at the weekend coach Sergio Orteman handed in his resignation. It would take an extraordinary turn of events, one of the biggest shocks in the history of the South American game, if Olimpia can deprive Flamengo of a place in the semifinals.
The set could be completed by Atletico Mineiro, who last week went to Buenos Aires and returned with a 1-0 win against River Plate. This one, though, is not a certainty. River Plate have a recent track record of digging themselves out of danger on Brazilian soil. They almost managed it in last year’s semi after going down 3-0 at home to Palmeiras in the first leg, winning the return 2-0 in Brazil.
It could prove significant that the scorer of last week’s goal, the former River Plate midfielder Ignacio Fernandez, will not be present for Atletico Mineiro. For years the left-footed playmaker was one of the most important players in the River Plate side. But, highlighting the financial advantage that the Brazilian clubs have over their continental rivals, he is now playing his football for Atletico, and broke into the box to volley home the goal that won the match.
Before the end of the game, though, Fernandez was the victim, perhaps harshly, of a red card for a high foot, and so is forced to miss out on the return game through suspension. He will be badly missed. Fernandez glues the Atletico side together, and serves as an effective supply line for the strikers. Some have argued in favour of a recall to the national side for the veteran Hulk, now reinvented as a centre-forward, and the prompting of Fernandez has much to do with this. Former Chelsea and Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa was signed at the weekend, but he will not be eligible for the Copa Libertadores until the semifinals.
Can River take advantage? In nine Libertadores games this year they have only managed 10 goals. If they are to make it through, someone will have to rise to the occasion, very promising striker Julian Alvarez, perhaps, or new signing Braian Romero or Uruguayan attacking midfielder Nico de la Cruz.
There will be more tension further north on Thursday, when Fluminense, the Brazilian side in the weakest position, travel to the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil for the second leg against Barcelona. Since the format was changed in 2017, from a competition squeezed into the first few months into an all-year tournament, Barcelona are the first club from outside Brazil and Argentina to make it twice to the quarterfinals.
Their hopes of equalling their achievements of 2017, and reaching the semis, were boosted by last week’s 2-2 draw in Rio’s Maracana stadium. Indeed, Barcelona’s position would be even stronger had they not conceded a stoppage time penalty. As it stands, a low-scoring draw is good enough for them, meaning that Fluminense are obliged to take the initiative. But they are not a possession-based side. Fluminense are at their best launching sporadic counter attacks, where their quick young wingers can link up with veteran centre-forward Fred.
They should have their moments in Guayaquil. Barcelona are an attractive side, who move the ball well, with wingers and attacking full-backs opening up the field and supplying options for Damian Diaz, who since Lionel Messi’s move to PSG has now become the world’s foremost 34-year-old playmaker born in Rosario to wear the No. 10 shirt of Barcelona.
The problems for Barcelona could come on the transitions, when the move breaks down and Fluminense can break at pace. The Brazilians also have a deep bench, with the likes of former Premier League striker Abel Hernandez ready to come on and make an impact late in the game.
The idea, then, of an unprecedented all-Brazilian last four of the Libertadores may stay alive all the way to the final whistle in Guayaquil on Thursday night.