Heavyweights from Argentina, Brazil make Copa Libertadores knockouts
Going into the penultimate week of action in the group phase of the Copa Libertadores, five teams had already booked their place in the knockout rounds -- Pumas and Toluca of Mexico, Atletico Nacional of Colombia, Nacional of Uruguay, and Deportivo Tachira, the first Venezuelan side to make it through since 2009.
No one had crossed the line from the two countries that tend to dominate the tournament: Brazil and Argentina. But it was just a matter of time. Another six places have been filled this week, and five of them have gone to teams from the continent's traditional big two.
Corinthians of Brazil managed to cross the line without kicking a ball. When Paraguay's Cerro Porteno lost to already-eliminated Cobresal of Chile, the main consequence was that Corinthians can no longer be overtaken by two teams in their group. The 2012 champions are safely through.
As are the 2013 winners. Atletico Mineiro have been the most impressive Brazilian side so far, and rounded off their group campaign with a 4-0 thrashing of hapless Peruvians Melgar, the only team to have lost all of their matches.
The 2014 champions, though, have fallen. San Lorenzo of Argentina will be ruing the fact that football matches do not last 80 minutes. As new coach Pablo Guede struggled to find his best starting lineup, San Lorenzo got off to a poor start in the competition. But they could have saved themselves.
In the group in which Toluca cruised through, the Argentines were competing with Gremio of Brazil for the second slot. They could claim to have had the better of the 1-1 draw when the teams met in Porto Alegre. The return game in Buenos Aires was hardly a contest. San Lorenzo scored early, but while they pummeled the Gremio goal they could not add to their lead. Punishment came in the 89th minute, when, in a rare break, Gremio snatched an equaliser.
San Lorenzo's last chance to save themselves came on Tuesday away to Toluca. The Argentines weathered an early storm, took the lead and seemed to be running down the clock comfortably. But once again they failed to make it all the way. Colombian Fernando Uribe struck with two late goals and San Lorenzo were out -- the elimination confirmed when Gremio, which spent a week in Quito acclimatising to the altitude, beat LDU of Ecuador 3-2 to become the third Brazilian qualifiers.
But there was not a fourth -- not this week, anyway. Palmeiras have staged a late rally, and did their best to save themselves with a thumping 4-0 home win against little River Plate of Uruguay. But it was all to no avail. For Palmeiras to qualify, Argentina's Rosario Central had to lose away to Nacional of Uruguay, who, already qualified, were not at full strength. Central won a comfortable 2-0 victory and join Boca Juniors -- the team who pipped them last year to a league and cup double -- in the last 16 of the competition.
A 1-0 win away to compatriots Racing means that Boca qualify with a game to spare -- a striking achievement given that it took them into stoppage time of their third game to score their first goal. After starting off with three draws, victories in Games 4 and 5 have sent them through.
So after Wednesday, three teams from Brazil and two from Argentina had guaranteed their presence in the knockout stage. And on Thursday they were joined by Independiente del Vale, a fascinating little club from Ecuador. Based on the outskirts of Quito, Independiente have come a long way in a short time with a model based on grooming and selling young talent.
Their history in the Libertadores is restricted to the past three campaigns. In 2015 they fell in the qualifying round. The year before, on debut, they narrowly failed to make it out of the group stage. But now they have done it. They needed to avoid defeat away to Chilean giants Colo Colo. And on a dramatic, highly charged night in Santiago they held on for a goalless draw.
Booking their place in the continent's best 16 is a remarkable achievement for such a humble club, and there has been plenty of good football along the way. But they have also ridden their luck.
It seemed all over for them in the qualifying round, when, with the last kick of the game, Guarani of Paraguay had a penalty that, if converted, would have taken them through into the group stage at the Ecuadorians' expense. The vastly experienced Rodrigo Lopez fired over the bar.
Now, more than two months later, they did a fine job holding the Colo Colo attack at bay. But by the end, the pressure was telling. In the last few minutes the Chileans struck the woodwork on three occasions -- two of them inside stoppage time.
But Independiente del Vale survived, and now, for the first time, they take their place in the last 16 -- which, after this week's action, now contains some of the big guns from Brazil and Argentina.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.