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 By Tim Vickery

Chapecoense face big test from River Plate in the Copa Sudamericana

River Plate marched past Quito in the previous round of the Copa Sudamericana.

Two months ago, 47 teams went into the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent. Now only eight remain, and all but three of them come from the continent's two major powers.

There is an artificial aspect to this tournament. With no group phase, the competition is home and away knock-out all the way from the start to the finish, which makes the draw in the early stages much easier to manipulate. And the Sudamericana is set up so that half of the places in the last 16 are reserved for clubs from Argentina and Brazil.

Inevitably, as the competition funnels down, there are clashes between clubs from the two countries. There was one in the previous round, with Huracan of Argentina overcoming Sport of Brazil.

River PlateRiver Plate
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But the Argentina-Brazil meeting in the quarterfinals is more interesting. Huracan and Sport are clubs of roughly equal prestige, middleweight boxers in their respective countries. Both, for example, have taken part in the Copa Libertadores, the continent's main event, twice in their history.

But the quarterfinal clash can in no way be seen as a meeting of equals, at least in terms of prestige. River Plate are the Buenos Aires giants, one of the great names of South American football. They have won the Argentine league title more times than anyone else. Not only are they the current holders of the Sudamericana, they also are reigning champions of the Libertadores, which they won for the third time in August.

Chapecoense, meanwhile, are a small-town provincial club, from the agro-industrial city of Chapeco in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. The club was founded in 1973. They spent two seasons in the first division at the end of the decade, but only because at that time the Brazilian league was so bloated that there was room for everyone.

Their history in a genuine 20-team first division is somewhat more recent. They were not even part of the national four divisions in 2008 before they began a meteoric rise -- boosted by the region's economic growth -- that took them into the top flight last year. This Copa Sudamerica campaign is their first competitive foreign adventure.

Chapecoense are currently battling against relegation in the Brazilian top flight.

There is, then, a lovely contrast in the River Plate-Chapecoense quarterfinal. On one hand, it is a clash of the titans, Brazil versus Argentina for a place in the semifinal. On the other, it is a veritable David versus Goliath.

In addition to their meeting (the first leg is in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, with the return game a week later in Brazil), both clubs also have other concerns -- and the difference between them merely adds emphasis to the contrast.

The Sudamericana is hardly priority to River Plate. Defending their title in next year's Libertadores is more important, but before that there is the question of the Club World Cup, given massive value in this part of the world. Ever since winning the continental title just over two months ago, River have been salivating at the prospect of a final against Barcelona, the ultraglamorous winners of the UEFA Champions League.

But if the Argentines have half an eye on events in Japan this December, the Brazilians have more modest and parochial worries. Chapecoense need to keep looking over their shoulder as they strive to avoid relegation to the second division. In last year's landmark season, they finished 15th, two positions higher than the drop zone.

With seven rounds to go, they are currently 14th, with a five-point cushion over the teams currently facing relegation. As everyone struggles to survive, the risk exists of being overtaken by rivals who are not blessed with Chapecoense's glittering midweek distraction.

The team's situation would have been more worrying without a stirring fight back at the weekend. Chapecoense were two goals down away to third place Gremio but rallied to win a stunning 3-2 victory. It is a score line that highlights some of the team's virtues: sound organisation and an interesting counter-attack, in which intelligent attacking midfielder Camilo is especially prominent.

Might these weapons be enough to trouble River Plate on Wednesday night? It is the same venue where Ecuador recently shocked Argentina in World Cup qualification. David, then, has recently landed a stone on Goliath in the Monumental stadium. Can it happen again at club level?

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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