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Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 11:01 UK

Tim Vickery column

Tim Vickery
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

The group phase is more than two thirds of the way through but it is still early days in the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League.

The grind of the knockout stages is yet to come but, so far at least, the early predictions are holding up - Brazil's clubs look the best bet to lift the trophy.

Adriano (right) heads the ball to score in the final minute against Sportivo Luqueno,
Sao Paulo's Adriano (right) demonstrated his power in the air

Check the figures - Argentina's six teams, for example, have accumulated 11 wins and nine defeats. Brazil's five representatives have won 12 matches and lost only two.

It is hardly surprising. Brazil's population is over four-and-a-half times bigger than Argentina's, making it much easier to replace all that talent that gets sold across the Atlantic.

In technical terms, Brazil's teams appear to have a key advantage over their continental opponents - their power in the air. This was clearly apparent last week in two games against clubs from Paraguay.

Adriano gave Sao Paulo a win over Sportivo Luqueno with an injury-time header, while two free-kicks hoisted high into the box brought Fluminense victory over Libertad.

Another area where Brazilian clubs often do damage is with their attacking full backs. The sheer pace and athleticism of their constant bursts can be hard to contain.

Argentine club Arsenal all but committed suicide last month when they travelled to Rio de Janeiro to face Fluminense and forgot to take care of the Brazilian full-backs.

They lost 6-0 and there were goals where one full-back, unmarked, began the move and the other, also unmarked, finished it off.

Full-backs in Brazil are usually seen more as attackers than defenders. They have the most vulnerable space on the field in front of them and they are expected to fill it, keeping the pitch wide, running at the opposing defence, hitting the bye-line and getting service into the penalty area.

But this importance given to attacking full-backs is one explanation for the fact that Brazilian clubs find it such an ordeal to play at altitude.

The unacclimatised player is always likely to have problems at more than around 2,500m above sea level. Different people react differently to the conditions but the visiting player will invariably lose some of his athletic capacity.

Fluminense's Gabriel scores his side's third goal against Argentina's Arsenal
Fluminense's Gabriel scores his side's third goal against Arsenal

This means that the away side need to dose themselves, to run as little as possible.

They need to stay compact and do as much as they can to dictate the rhythm of the game from central midfield but the reliance on attacking full-backs has made it harder for Brazilian clubs to do this.

As former national team coach Vanderley Luxemburgo has pointed out, it has stretched the team and as a result, runners and markers, rather than the passers of old, have tended to fill the central midfield positions.

And at altitude the Brazilian teams have at times looked lost because in the rarefied air it is simply not possible for the full-backs to carry out their usual function of continually charging up and down the touchline.

Bad experiences and poor results at altitude have turned the issue into a trauma for the Brazilian clubs, which has led to a split in the South American Federation.

Brazil were sneaky - they kept quiet while they needed the support of their continent for their 2014 World Cup bid. Once this was secured they broke ranks, petitioning everyone and anyone on the dangers of altitude.

They say they are protecting the health of their players. Not too much weight should be attributed to this claim.

There are question marks about the risks of altitude but there are no doubts at all about the dangers of playing in extreme temperatures - and, if the TV stations so wish, Brazil's clubs play domestic games in the scorching afternoon heat of 4 o'clock, effectively 3 o'clock when the clocks go back during high summer.

Brazil's clubs subject their players to these conditions without so much as a whimper.

The hypocrisy and high-handedness of the Brazilian position has alienated many in the South American Federation, which last week met to debate the issue.

Of the continent's 10 countries, nine declared their willingness to continue playing at altitude.

Brazil were left high and dry.

You can put your questions to Tim Vickery every week on the World Football Phone-in on Radio 5 Live's Up All Night programme from 0230 to 0400 GMT every Saturday. You can also download last week's World Football Phone-in Podcast.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at vickerycolumn@hotmail.com

I am a Liverpool fan from Greece and I would like to ask about Rafinha since he seems set to be one of manager Rafael Benitez's signings this summer. I noticed he recently broke through the national team as well. Do you think he could handle the tempo, pace and physical contact of the Premier League? What does he offer to a team and where do you think he stands among full-backs from all over the world?
Kostas Gliptis

He is a fine example of Brazil's tradition of top class dynamic and attacking full-backs, the very thing I was writing about in the article above. More than three years ago I picked him out in World Soccer magazine as one of the stars of the 2005 South American Under-20 Championship. He was with Coritiba in the south of Brazil at the time, has since made a success of his spell with Schalke and I think he could do very well in England. He is dynamic, has terrific lung power and is an excellent player to launch counter-attacks.

As an avid follower of Argentine football, I wanted to ask why Rodrigo Palacio hasn't left Boca Juniors and moved to Europe like so many other talented South American footballers. I was in Argentina two years ago and he was the best forward in the league at that time. It seemed only a matter of time before he left Buenos Aires and joined a big club in Spain, Italy or even England. I would have thought his style of play would be perfectly suited to Spanish football. Can you explain to me why he is still at Boca.
Paul Boswell

He's now 26 and I think he'll almost certainly go this summer. He works the flanks very well and is often compared to Claudio Caniggia, though I'm not sure that he has quite the same pace. His form suffered for a while - there were some injuries - but I think that a lot of it has to do with the reality check he got at the 2006 World Cup. He went with the Argentine press telling him how great he was and then when he came off the bench in the opening game against the Ivory Coast he found it very hard to make an impression. He soon found out that there is a chasm between the standard of domestic football in Argentina and a World Cup match and that he perhaps wasn't quite as good as he thought. Maybe it took a while to ride that blow but there are signs of a return to form - he was terrific in a game I recently saw against Colo Colo and I suspect that he will soon be on his way.




see also
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