Copa Libertadores group stage: Flamengo back to defend their title

It's often said in South America that the year only truly starts once Carnival is over. The sequins and glitter have now been packed away for a few months, and the serious footballing action kicks off this week with the start of the group phase of the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League.

Thirty-two clubs from 10 nations are taking part. By early May, they will have been whittled down to 16 and in the second half of the year, the knockout phase builds towards the final in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium on Nov. 21. Here are a few good reasons to keep a close eye on the action.

The drama and the passion

No one who watched last year's final can have forgotten the last few minutes. It was the first one-off decider on a neutral ground -- the tradition ever since 1960 had always been for home and away two-legged finals -- and two genuine heavyweights fought it out in the Peruvian capital Lima. Argentina's River Plate appeared to have the title in the bag, but in an extraordinary last three minutes, Flamengo of Brazil turned a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 triumph.

It was the Libertadores at its most dramatic, with great names cheered on by fervent fans to a conclusion that will live long in the memory. There should be plenty of similar moments in 2020. The field contains 14 former champions. Spurred on by the thought that the final will be on their home ground, Flamengo are desperate to retain their title, something no club has managed since the turn of the century.

Their big domestic competitors Palmeiras are under pressure to produce, and Gremio, the side thrashed by Flamengo in late year's semifinal, are anxious for revenge. Gremio are in the same group as their Porto Alegre rivals Internacional, meaning that Brazil's fiercest derby will be fought with high stakes twice in the next few weeks.

The Buenos Aires giants River Plate and Boca Juniors lead the charge from Argentina. The inaugural winners and five-time champions Penarol of Uruguay are now, intriguingly, coached by Diego Forlan. And Roque Santa Cruz and Emmanuel Adebayor lead the attack for an ambitious Olimpia of Paraguay, chasing a fourth title.

The chance of a surprise

In the qualifying rounds, Sao Paulo giants Corinthians have already been eliminated by humble Guarani of Paraguay. The Libertadores is less predictable than the Champions League. Long journeys, hostile environments and geographic variations such as altitude can combine to make life difficult for any away team.

A frequent source of surprises in recent times have been teams from Ecuador. Liga of Quito, or LDU, were winners back in 2008 and reached the quarterfinals last year. Barcelona of Guayaquil got through to the last four in 2017, and sailed through the qualifying rounds this time around in fine style.

And then there is the extraordinary Independiente del Valle, a tiny club from the Quito suburbs who carry out such excellent youth development work. They reached the Libertadores final in 2016 and are the reigning champions of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent. At the weekend they won the Under-20 Libertadores title, a demonstration that their next collection of talented youngsters are ready to spring some surprises in the future.

A glance at the next generation

On Sunday, Vinicius Jr. helped Real Madrid win El Clasico against Barcelona, some two years since he first showed he could tip the balance in senior football. He was playing for Flamengo in a tricky game away to Emelec of Ecuador, and produced a superb display to win the game for his side. The home fans hardly seemed angry. At the final whistle they were queueing up to have their photo taken with the youngster, all too aware that they'd been in the presence of something special.

South America continues to be unsurpassed as a producer of talent for the global game, and the Libertadores can be an important stepping-stone on the way to greatness. Last year Brian Rodriguez made his name in the competition with Penarol before moving to the U.S. and joining MLS side LAFC. His place on the flank has been taken by the 18-year-old Facundo Pellistri, another who seems almost absurdly talented. It will be fascinating to see how he gets on in his first Libertadores, though there will be others straining to make the breakthrough as well.

Can South America close the gap with Europe?

The FIFA Club World Cup is hugely important in South America, but in the last few years it has often been painful viewing for continental audiences. The chasm between the champions of the Libertadores and the winners of the Champions League has been all too apparent.

Late last year Flamengo were beaten by Liverpool, but they went down with dignity. They gave their glamorous Premier League opponents a genuine game. It was probably the best spectacle the competition has provided since the current format was introduced in 2005.

Has this served as inspiration? If Flamengo manage to retain their title, can they go one better this December? Or will the continent rise to the challenge and come up with an even better team? The questions start to be posed on Tuesday. The answers will emerge as the action unfolds over the next few months.