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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 08:11 GMT 09:11 UK
Libertadores reaches the business end
By Tim Vickery

Boca Juniors Diego Cagna celebrates scoring
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.

But there 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.

Supporters enjoy a Copa Libertadores match
The Copa Libertadores is enjoyed by supporters

Distances in South America are vast, and most people are poor.

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 group stages.

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.


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