Eight slots up for grabs before Copa Libertadores enters knockout play
Half of the places have been filled in the last 16 of the Copa Libertadores. This final week of the group phase, then, is all about filling the other half.
Eight slots remain, and 14 teams are chasing them. In some cases, it is a straight shootout. In Group 5, for example, either Colombia's Santa Fe or The Strongest of Bolivia will join Santos of Brazil in the knockout phase. The two teams meet in Bogota on Tuesday. Santa Fe need to win. A draw is good enough for The Strongest. But the Bolivians appear to have slipped from their fine early-season form. They were awful in last week's 1-1 draw at home to Santos, with key players looking out of touch or short of full fitness. So Santa Fe, in front of their own fans, will consider themselves favourites.
Their compatriots Medellin face a tough task, meanwhile, in another kind of two-horse race. On Thursday, they travel to meet already-qualified River Plate of Argentina. But they will have at least half an ear on what is happening in the other Group 2 fixture. Whatever the score in Buenos Aires, Medellin's efforts will have been in vain if Emelec of Ecuador win at home, as expected, against the already-eliminated Melgar of Peru. The crunch game in this group came last week, when with a splendid first-half performance Emelec won 2-1 in Medellin. With the Ecuadorans a point in front of their rivals going into the final round, it is hard to see them slipping up now. Medellin, though, need to win their game and hope for the best. Indeed, if there is a real surprise in Guayaquil and Emelec are beaten, Medellin could sneak into the last 16 even with a draw.
In two cases, three teams are fighting for two places. In Group 3's climax on Wednesday night, Brazilian champions Palmeiras would seem to be in pole position. They need to avoid defeat by a two-goal margin at home to Atletico Tucuman of Argentina, a provincial club making their Libertadores debut this year. Palmeiras have not looked entirely convincing in the competition -- hence the replacement of coach Eduardo Baptista with Cuca, who was in charge when they won the domestic title last December. But it would be a major upset if they were to lose by two goals. A one-goal win will be good enough for the Argentines if Bolivia's Jorge Wistermann are beaten away by Penarol of Uruguay, already eliminated and playing behind closed doors after violent scenes in their last home game.
Group 8 is also a three-horse race with a Brazilian side sitting pretty. Gremio will qualify with a draw at home to Zamora of Venezuela, the only team to have lost all its games in the competition. They could even lose by three goals and still qualify. The other slot lies between Guarani of Paraguay and Deportes Iquique of Chile. The Paraguayans are at home and need only a draw. These two sides got the group phase under way with their meeting in Chile at the start of March, when Guarani won a tight game with the only goal. Iquique must claim revenge to stay alive in the competition.
There is one group in which all four teams still have a chance -- and there is also an added complication. As it stands, Nacional of Uruguay have eight points and are at home to Lanus of Argentina, with seven. Also on seven points, Brazil's Chapecoense are at home to Zulia of Venezuela, which have five.
Everyone is in the hunt. Nacional qualify with a draw and Lanus with a win -- or a draw if Chapecoense do not win. Chapecoense need a win, although a draw would be good enough if Nacional beat Lanus. Zulia must win and hope that Nacional beat Lanus.
And if all of these permutations seem magnificently complex, then events of last week add extra turmoil. When Chapecoense lost 3-0 away to Nacional, they had two players sent off: defender Luiz Otavio and winger Rossi. They automatically sat out the club's next international game, the Recopa final (winners of the 2016 Sudamericana versus the 2016 Libertadores champions) away to Atletico Nacional of Colombia. Luiz Otavio had been handed a three game suspension, though, but the club, it appears, had not been adequately notified. Last week they travelled to face Lanus and included Otavio in their starting lineup. They were informed that he was ineligible, but using the argument that the club had not been officially informed, they selected him anyway and he scored the winning goal.
Lanus have taken it for granted that Chapecoense will be stripped of the three points, making it all but impossible for the Brazilians to qualify. As of Monday night, CONMEBOL had yet to make a ruling. Time is running out. This is the group that gets the week under way on Tuesday, and those concerned (i.e. all four teams) would like to have things clear before the ball starts rolling.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.