South America Review: Copa Libertadores group stage nearly set

(Photo by Norberto Duarte/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norberto Duarte/AFP/Getty Images) /

Four matches remain in the qualifying stages of the Copa Libertadores. Read about the tournament and more soccer news in this week’s South America Review.

The rhythms of the season in South America contain intrigues on both a domestic and a continental level. With national leagues launching their seasons over the past weeks, every CONMEBOL country is now in the midst of its top-flight campaigns save Brazil, currently playing out state championships instead of the national league.

At the same time, the long march of the Copa Libertadores is into the final of three qualifying stages. We will talk more about the first leg of qualifiers soon, and look ahead to the return leg that will determine which four teams complete the 32-team group stage in this year’s tournament.

How the top clubs manage to balance out their participation in the Libertadores and in their domestic league and cup competitions determined whether seasons end in success and failure. So let’s dive in to take a look at both continental competition and a couple of countries more specifically as we dive into this week’s edition of the South America Review.

Eight teams vying for last four Copa Libertadores spots

Atlético Mineiro, currently sitting just ahead of América and Cruzeiro in their state championship in Brazil, set themselves up to join Venezuela’s Zamora, Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño, and Uruguay’s Nacional in Group E. A 2-0 victory on the road against Uruguay’s Defensor Sporting in Montevideo on Wednesday, February 22 set them up for an easy advance into the main field.

In Arequipa on Tuesday, Melgar snatched a 2-0 victory away from Venezuela’s Caracas FC, and the Peruvians appear to be focused on getting into the Libertadores group stage rather than the start of the domestic season. Melgar’s first two matches of the Apertura campaign were a 3-0 loss at home against Deportivo Municipal and a 1-1 draw at Ayacucho. Dates with Brazil’s Palmeiras, San Lorenzo of Argentina, and Colombia’s Junior FC await the winner.

Libertad, sitting ninth in the 12-team Paraguayan Primera, is in much better shape to keep playing in continental play across South America after their 1-0 win at home in Asunción over Colombia’s Atlético Nacional. If they can hold on to the advantage, they will slot in to a group that includes Brazilian side Grêmio, Universidad Católica of Chile, and Argentina’s Rosario Central.

In the final qualifier, Argentina’s Talleres de Córdoba drew at home 2-2 against Chile’s Palestino. After building a two-goal lead in the first half, the hosts gave up their clean sheet right before halftime and then allowed the visitors an equalizer midway through the second half. Whichever team prevails in Santiago de Chile on Wednesday gets to take on defending champion River Plate, Peru’s Alianza Lima, and Internacional of Brazil.

Racing Club retakes sole position of Superliga lead in Argentina

Entering the weekend, Racing Club was in an unfamiliar spot. The Avellaneda giants were sole leaders of the Superliga in Argentina for most of the season. But with just a handful of matches left to play in the season, Racing found themselves suddenly knotted up in a tie atop the table.

This weekend provided the opening for Racing to regain unshared leadership in the league, however. Eduardo Coudet’s charges traveled just down the street for the Avellaneda derby against rival Independiente. A Guillermo Burdisso own goal five minutes into the match set the stage for Racing to run away with the victory.

But at halftime, the score was knotted at 1-1 after Fernando Gaibor found an equalizer in first-half stoppage time. Coming out of the break, a penalty allowed Lisandro López to regain the lead for the visitors, and Matías Zaracho potted an insurance marker in second-half stoppage time of the 3-1 victory.

Defensa y Justicia, the team that entered the weekend sitting level with Racing Club, was unable to keep pace. Facing off against third-placed Boca Juniors, Defensa y Justicia had the clear advantage in shots and possession. Generating nearly two-dozen scoring chances to just four for Boca Juniors, Defensa was undone by a 50th-minute strike from the ageless Carlos Tevez.

As a result, Boca still sits 10 points behind Racing Club with five matches left to play. Defensa y Justicia is now a full three points back. The league is once again Racing’s to lose.

Strong second half puts Peñarol atop Uruguayan table two weeks in

A fortnight into the Uruguayan season, and we once again see the most dominant team in the nation’s history vault right back to its familiar perch atop the Primera standings. After a straightforward 1-0 victory in the opening weekend, Peñarol emphatically took down Rampla Juniors 5-0 on Saturday.

Gabriel Fernández opened the scoring just 11 minutes into the match. That was all the scoring that transpired in the first half, as the two teams went to the locker room separated by just that one goal.

Coming out of the break, though, Peñarol took full advantage of their overmatched opponent. Brian Rodríguez added a second goal in the 69th minute, a score that opened the floodgates for Peñarol. Lucas Hernández scored in the 82nd minute, Fernández completed his brace in the 85th minute, and Luis Miguel Tabárez potted a fifth right before stoppage time.

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With the resounding takedown of Rampla Juniors, Peñarol now has six goals scored and none allowed through two matches. They sit just ahead of Cerro Largo on goal differential, after the former leaders were only able to muster a 3-0 defeat of Defensor Sporting.

The result was a one-goal lead for Peñarol on differential. It will be interesting to see, though, if Libertadores action impacts each team’s chances. Cerro Largo can focus entirely on domestic competition without a spot in either the Libertadores or the Copa Sudamericana. Peñarol, on the other hand, begins the group stage of the Libertadores on March 7 against LDU Quito.