Has the Copa Libertadores finally sprung into life?

After a goal laden week, many of the key groups are tightening up. Who will qualify after the fortnight lay-off?

For a competition that promises so much, the Copa Libertadores has suffered from a disappointing start in its new format.

Until last week, only the struggles of the Argentinian clubs had threatened to generate some group stage interest.

Indeed, interest over the Atlantic has focused on just two stories: tragic Chapecoense’s victorious debut in the tournament, and the brawl that tarnished the end of Palmeiras’ remarkable comeback in Montevideo a fortnight ago.

The competition had yet to highlight one outstanding team or, in the same way that Marlos Moreno or Jonathan Calleri shone last season, a young talent destined for Europe.

After the latest round of fixtures, the Copa has finally found some of the magic that makes it such a popular competition worldwide. The difficult away trips, the surprise outfits, the huge clubs with designs on the trophy who could fall at the first hurdle.

Let’s have a look at the major talking points:

  • Early qualification for two surprises

Godoy Cruz and Barcelona are the first two sides to qualify and have done so in tough-looking groups.

Firstly, Barcelona have triumphed in Group 1 thanks to a thrilling 2-0 victory over a tired looking Botafogo side in Rio de Janeiro.

The Brazilians were undone early by two direct Barcelona moves. Stand-in winger José Ayoví opened the scoring after racing past Emerson and Joel Carli to poke a tidy finish beyond Paraguayan goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez.

The Botafogo stopper was then left embarrassed after his central defenders failed to deal with a straightforward bouncing ball. Barca’s Uruguayan number 9 Jonatan Alvez did the rest.

The Ecuadorians were combative in their approach and restricted the favourites to have just three shots on target from inside their penalty area.

Having only conceded twice from four games, they have already qualified ahead of defending champions Atlético Nacional and four time winners Estudiantes.

With five games gone in Group 6, Godoy Cruz are the second team to qualify for the last sixteen.

Their 1-1 draw with Libertad in Mendoza means that they will progress alongside Atlético Mineiro.

Lucas Bernardi will take his side to the Estádio Independência next Tuesday night (1am BST) as the two sides play a straight shoot out for first place.

  • Argentinians recovering well

Estudiantes aside, the Argentinian clubs are recovering after their poor start.

Unbeaten Godoy Cruz are through, while River Plate and Lanús can join them with one more win.

River are flying with three wins from three but Marcelo Gallardo now faces a selection headache ahead of the visit of Emelec on Wednesday night.

With continental qualification likely, but by no means assured, could he rest players ahead of the all-important Primera trip to La Bombonera in clásico week?

River are just four points behind Boca Juniors having played one game fewer than their fierce rivals.

Could Emelec shock Los Millonarios and give themselves a chance of qualifying alongside compatriots Barcelona?

San Lorenzo completed a stunning 3-0 win over Atlético Paranaense in Brazil. Los Cuervos now have a real chance of qualifying despite losing their first two games. They stand level on points with Atlético with one fixture remaining.

In the final game, San Lorenzo entertain Flamengo, top of Group 4 despite losing on both their away trips thus far, while Atlético travel to Universidad Catolica who are unbeaten in Santiago.

Atlético Tucumán have also recovered well but need snookers to progress. Two consecutive wins against Jorge Wilstermann and Peñarol leave them two points behind the Bolivians with one game to play.

Wilstermann head to Uruguay having won 6-2 in the return fixture in Cochabamba, while Tucumán head to Sao Paolo to play Palmeiras, the tournament favourites.

El Decano will be without star forward Fernando Zampredi, who is out after tearing his meniscus in Sunday’s draw with Colón in the Primera.

  • Brazilians stutter

If you were to look down the ‘Outright Winners’ list with any bookmaker, you would see a collection of Bandeira flags alongside the shortest odds.

Having said that, things are not proving straightforward for many of these historic clubs.

Botafogo look like finishing second to Barcelona; Flamengo have suffered two defeats and Paranaense must better San Lorenzo’s result next week to qualify.

Chapecoense have done superbly to pick up four points from four games and but face a tricky trip to Lanús before their final outing against Venezuelan minnows Zulia.

Atlético Mineiro, Santos and Palmeiras are best placed to mount a serious challenge for the crown.

Serie A Champions Palmeiras have a squad of enviable quality and depth.

However, their defeat to the highly entertaining Wilstermann in Cochabamba was not entirely unexpected, the Bolivians are notoriously strong hosts, while the climate and 8000ft altitude make it further difficult for travellers.

Atlético have already qualified, largely thanks to the goals of Fred and Juan Cazares, while Santos are one of just four unbeaten sides still in the competition.

  • Thank goodness for goals

The competition has really opened up over the last fortnight. With the Argentinians hitting their stride and some of the Brazilians missing their step, the Libertadores has finally offered some of its inherent unpredictability.

Chilean minnows Deportes Iquique have won three on the spin, including a 2-1 home victory over Grêmio, to give them a chance of qualifying.

The Strongest of Bolivia have finally hit their stride, knocking five past Sporting Cristal in La Paz on Thursday.

Indeed, only two fixtures, the 1-1 draw in Mendoza and Barcelona’s victory in Rio, saw fewer than three goals scored last week.

With clásico weekend coming up in Argentina, and the return of the Campeonato Brasileiro, could we a few more shocks next weekend as tired legs and rotated squads come in to play?

  • Bad betting tips

I’d Back Emelec to get something against River tonight. Gallardo’s side have won three from three and so the odds are highly stacked in their favour.

The Guayaquil club lost away to Peruvian outfit Melgar with a depleted side, and only a shocking defensive mix-up saw Lucas Alario complete a late turnaround for River in the return fixture.

If Gallardo does choose to rest players for the super, Emelec’s odds of upsetting the Argentinian giants will improve dramatically.

As for next week, back The Strongest to end Santos’ unbeaten run in La Paz, Lanús to complete a double over Chapecoense, while Barcelona and Botafogo should seal their last sixteen berths on Thursday evening.

Zulia of Venezuela have already beaten Nacional in Montevideo and, should they keep it tight at the back, could make it an interesting final week in Group 7 by avoiding defeat.

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