As the European season comes to a close, South America's premier club
competition steps up a gear.
The group phase has been completed in the Copa Libertadores, and this week
the 16 remaining teams move in to the knock-out stage.
In Europe the Champions League stretches out over the entire season, but the Libertadores is crammed into the first half of the year.
The contenders now
face a punishing schedule - a game a week, only breaking for two rounds of World Cup qualifiers, until the champions of the continent are crowned in mid July.
Winning the Libertadores, then, can be a case of catching fire at the right moment - as Boca Juniors did two years ago.
They limped unconvincingly through their group games, lost the home leg of their second round match - and then they suddenly clicked, claiming the title with an epic run of seven straight wins.
It was a campaign without a single penalty shoot out - a rare event in the Libertadores, but one that should be about to become more common.
It was the only year in the last six that spot kicks did not decide the
destiny of the title.
Penalties are obviously dramatic, and they have an
advantage that makes them attractive from a South American point of view; they are much less disruptive to TV schedules than extra time.
can be too much of a good thing.
The structure of the Libertadores is basically sound
The year 2004 was especially busy year for
penalty shoot outs. Of the 15 knock out ties, from the second round through to the final, eight went to penalties.
Such an excessive amount cheapens the
drama and also weakens the spectacle, since sides can feel encouraged to
play cautiously and take their chances from 12 yards.
Action has been taken. This year the away goals rule has been introduced.
It should reduce the number of penalty shoot outs and promote a more
attacking approach from the visitors.
The new rule will not apply to the final- and here it is worth noting that
the European style one off final on a neutral ground is not feasible in the Libertadores.
The Copa Libertadores is enjoyed by supporters
Distances in South America are vast, and most people are
Travelling from, say, Colombia to Argentina to watch a game of
football is well beyond the reach of the average supporter.
A two legged, home and away final is the inevitable format.
From this year,
if aggregate scores are level at the end of the two matches then extra time
will be played.
For such a showpiece event TV executives are willing to
have their schedules messed around.
The structure of the Libertadores has been basically sound since the
competition was expanded at the start of the present decade.
Europe's Champions League tried out - and discarded - a convoluted arrangement of two
South America kept it simple, with eight groups of four leading
straight to the knock-out matches.
It is exciting and easy for the
supporter to understand, but it was producing too many penalty shoot outs.
Now that these improvements have been made, more ties should be won and lost
in open play.
All that remains is for South America's players to be
sufficiently inspired to rise to the occasion.