Boca Juniors, River Plate sweating as Copa Libertadores group stage wraps up

Nine clubs have already booked their ticket in the knock-out stage of the Copa Libertadores. Seven slots remain, and in the final week of group phase action, 15 clubs are chasing them.

The pattern of the last few years has been repeated. So far it is a tale of almost complete domination by Brazil and Argentina. Four of the teams to have qualified already come from Brazil (Palmeiras and Flamengo, the last two champions, plus Atletico Mineiro and Sao Paulo), and four come from Argentina — Velez Sarsfield, Racing, Defensa y Justicia and Argentinos Juniors.So far, then, the only intruder is Barcelona of Ecuador, who have played a fine campaign and sealed their place last week with a 0-0 draw away to Boca Juniors.

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Indeed, the striking thing about the Argentine participation is that the only clubs from the country still left sweating on a place are the big two, the 2018 finalists River Plate and Boca Juniors. Boca seem to have a relatively simple task ahead of them. They will make sure of qualification on Wednesday with a win at home to The Strongest of Bolivia, a team who have belied their name in the competition with away defeats of 4-0 and 5-0. A Boca win would eliminate last year’s runners-up, Santos of Brazil.

The case of River Plate is a little more complex because three clubs are involved — and there is also the outbreak of coronavirus which reduced River last week to eleven players, none of them a specialist goalkeeper. Alarm bells were ringing loud when a further two tested positive, but now 15 appear to have recovered, and River hope to be able to name a much stronger side for Tuesday’s match at home to Fluminense of Brazil, though there could be problems with fitness levels following the quarantine period. A draw is good enough for River. But Fluminense take the field needing a win to be sure.

Any other result leaves them vulnerable to Junior of Colombia, who at the same time are facing their compatriots Santa Fe. Theoretically Junior are the away side. But with the social unrest in Colombia the match has been switched to a neutral venue in Ecuador. Santa Fe have nothing but pride to play for, and if Junior can beat them, especially by more than a single goal, they will probably claim one of the qualification slots, putting real pressure on the game between River and Fluminense. There may not be the novelty value of last week, when River were forced to field midfielder Enzo Perez in goal. Nevertheless, it could be a night of high drama in Buenos Aires.

The two Paraguayan giants, such traditional participants in the Libertadores, also have work to do. In the case of Cerro Porteno, the task is straightforward enough. They are in a direct battle with America of Colombia. The two sides meet in Paraguay on Tuesday night, and Cerro Porteno must avoid defeat. Three times champions Olimpia are in a much tighter spot. They are in a group where all four teams are still in contention.

But, behind on points and with an awful goal difference, Olimpia are in the worst position. The team in the best position, with a foot and four toes in the knock out phase, are Internacional of Brazil. And barring an extraordinary Brazilian collapse at home to Always Ready of Bolivia, Olimpia can take heart from the fact that their fate is in their hands.

A win by a margin of four goals is needed against Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela. It will not be easy. Tachira are full of confidence after last week’s 7-2 thrashing of Always Ready. But can they hold out against what will surely be an Olimpia onslaught? It will be a night for strong characters, on both sides.

That leaves one slot, from the group so surprisingly and impressively dominated by Argentinos Juniors. With a spot already booked, Argentinos might take their foot off the pedal for their visit to Uruguay to face Nacional. The Uruguayans certainly hope so. Nacional are currently bottom of the group, but hope that a win on Wednesday night can leapfrog them above their two rivals, Universidad Catolica of Chile and Atletico Nacional of Colombia, who meet in Santiago. Gus Poyet’s Catolica are in pole position. A win will send them through along with Argentinos.

For Atletico Nacional it is a case of rediscovering their form of a few weeks back. They started so well, but have now gone three games without a goal. They remain dangerous opponents, who completely outplayed Catolica in the home game back in April, and have it in them to find that blend once more. Nacional of Uruguay will be hoping that this game is drawn.

Failing that, that the Colombians win by a single goal, so that a conclusive victory over Argentinos can carry them home on goal difference. Whatever happens, there is the guarantee of one team making it through from either Chile, Colombia or Uruguay — diluting just a little bit the domination of Brazil and Argentina in the closing stages of the competition.

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