And then there were 16: Copa Libertadores Preview

The Copa Libertadores is heading towards the “business end” with 16 teams remaining, four of which are Argentine. Estudiantes and Atlético Tucumán have already been eliminated – having finished third in their groups – and will now drop into the Copa Sudamericana for a second bite at the cherry of continental glory. That leaves River Plate, Godoy Cruz, Lanús, and San Lorenzo flying the albiceleste flag in the knockout rounds of South America’s premier cup competition.

Godoy Cruz, the lowest ranked side still standing, face the fancied Gremio in the first of the last 16 games to kick off. The Brazilian’s, from the southern city of Porto Alegre, have been playing scintillating football this season and are battling it out with Corinthians for top spot in the Brazilian championship. The two sides met last weekend in a top of the table clash with Corinthians victorious to go four points clear, but Gremio are still very much a team to be feared. Now that the much-fancied Flamengo have been eliminated Gremio look the most likely Brazilian candidate to go all the way.

Godoy Cruz gained 11 points in the group phase and were unbeaten on their home patch in Mendoza. However, they were trounced 4-1 on their last trip to Brazil by Atlético Mineiro. Gremio won all of their home group games in the group phase but were patchy away, picking up four points from nine. This may boil down to which side gains the most spectacular result on their own patch. Godoy Cruz will host first and will be looking for a favourable result to take into the second leg.

River Plate face Paraguay’s Guaraní after topping group three with 13 points. Their dominance could’ve been enhanced had they played a full-strength side in the last group game, but given they’d already qualified, and had a big domestic clash three days later, River rested several key players. The progress of Los Millionarios may depend on the outcome of a doping scandal uncovered last week which may lead to player suspensions or indeed expulsion from the competition. Traces of Hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic drug banned by WADA, were found in several players’ samples, the club doctor comically putting it down to a “contaminated batch” of a drug they’ve been using for years without an issue. River’s form has been fairly phenomenal this season given they’ve been fighting on two fronts, and their prolific striking duo of Lucas Alario and Sebastian Driussi were also implicated in the scandal. If certain players are banned, or their heads aren’t in the right place, Guaraní could prove to be a banana skin. Driussi has courted the interest of several European clubs so it remains to be seen how much of River’s Libertadores campaign he will be a part of. River may be able to count on the support of Independiente fans who know that if their fellow grande lift the cup they will have the chance to enter the qualifying rounds for next season’s tournament despite finishing sixth in the Primera Division this season.

Lanús, who were in pot three of the group phase draw along with Godoy Cruz, will face Bolivia’s wonderfully named The Strongest in the last 16. Lanús, from Buenos Aires province, topped their group with 13 points and managed to pick up seven of those on the road. Their away form will need to be good against The Strongest, who play in the tough high-altitude conditions of La Paz. They recorded eight goals in three home games during the group phase so will fancy their chances in the Bolivian capital, a notoriously difficult place to earn a result.

San Lorenzo’s journey to the last 16 is fairly remarkable, topping their group with the slenderest of margins. El Ciclón incredibly picked up one point from the first three fixtures and were thrashed 4-0 by Flamengo in the opening game. However, maximum points from the last three fixtures saw them finish above Atlético Paranaense courtesy of a goal difference of plus one. Their opponents in the last 16, Emelec, will be no pushovers. The Ecuadorians already have an impressive result in the bag in this season’s competition after gaining a point at River’s Estadio Monumental in the group phase.

The bracket has already been laid out by COMNEBOL so each side can plot their route to the final and dream of glory. The winner of Godoy Cruz vs. Gremio will face either Nacional (Uruguay) or Botafogo; If San Lorenzo and Lanús overcome their opponents they will face each other in an all-Argentine quarter-final; River will face the winner of Jorge Wilstermann vs Atlético Mineiro if they progress.

Argentine teams have now finished their league campaign so can put their all into the upcoming first legs. However, Brazilian teams, whose league is still running, will be at a slightly unfair advantage when the second legs take place in a months time. They’ll be sharp and match fresh whilst the Argentine sides will be rusty after a month off in what is effectively their offseason.

The first legs take place between 4 July and 10 August.