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Can Delfin follow in the Copa Libertadores footsteps of Independiente del Valle?

Arturo Mina
Ecuador's Independiente del Valle marched all the way to the Copa Libertadores final in 2016.

On Tuesday night, Delfin of Ecuador kick off the 2019 Copa Libertadores when they host Nacional of Paraguay in the qualifying round.

Delfin might draw some inspiration from one of their compatriots; three years ago, Independiente del Valle were in the qualifying round of the Libertadores, also against Paraguayan opposition. And had Guarani scored a last minute penalty, the Ecuadorian side would have made no further progress.

Instead, they went all the way to the final. On the way they eliminated River Plate, and in the semifinal they won home and away against the mighty Boca Juniors, before falling narrowly in the final to Atletico Nacional of Colombia.

Delfin, then, are entitled to dream. But they will also be aware that for them the task will be much harder -- and not just because they have been obliged to sell star player Andres Chicaiza to LDU of Quito, the one Ecuadorian side to have lifted the Libertadores.

The main difficulty faced by Delfin is the change in the tournament's organisation since that memorable campaign by Independiente -- who starred in the last year before the competition was expanded.

Firstly, Independiente only had to get through one qualifying round before they could take their place in the group phase of the competition. Delfin will need to jump over three hurdles.

The expansion of the Libertadores has greatly extended the qualifying phase. Should Delfin overcome Nacional, they will then come up against Caracas of Venezuela. And another triumph there will carry them through to a contest against either Melgar of Peru or Universidad de Chile.

They will, then, have to clock up some considerable air miles merely to win a place in a group of intimidating strength -- Palmeiras of Brazil, San Lorenzo of Argentina and Junior of Colombia. A place in the last 16 looks like an impossible task.

And this is made still harder by another aspect of the competition's expansion. Until 2016, the Libertadores was crammed into the first half of the year -- occasionally, in World Cup years, extending into July or possibly early August. Now it goes on all year round. It is little more than a month since the controversial 2018 version came to its conclusion.

The longer the duration of the tournament, the slighter the chances of an upset. An all year long Libertadores favours those sides with the financial resources to keep re-enforcing their squad during the course of the competition. Should Delfin pull off a major shock and reach the knockout stages, they would run the risk of losing key players, and would lack the ability adequately to replace them.

As long as the ball is round, however, Delfin and their fans can dream that it might bounce their way. They can take heart from the giant-killing exploits three years ago of Independiente del Valle. But they can also pause to recognise that since then, in the new long term format of the Libertadores, only teams from Argentina and Brazil have reached the final.

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