Copa Libertadores full of drama as Palmeiras, Flamengo fight back

Compared to the fallout in Europe around the proposed Super League and the new 36-team UEFA Champions League, South America's Copa Libertadores looks simple. True, teams from Brazil and Argentina may have been handed too many slots in the tournament -- in the group phase, which kicked off this week, the big two provide 13 of the 32 contenders -- but the key point is that all who enter have won the right to take part.

Some undoubted giants -- Corinthians of Brazil, Independiente of Argentina, Penarol of Uruguay -- failed to make the cut and have to make do with the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent. The Libertadores is based on sporting merit.

Moreover, the structure of the competition looks reassuringly solid, traditional and easy to understand. There are eight groups of four, with the top two from each group going through to the knockout stage. There are no convoluted measures to create more 'content' and revenue for the giant clubs with the most political clout.

And with the potential champions more widely distributed than in Europe, there are few meaningless games. Two of the groups contain three former winners, making it inevitable that some big names will fall early. Carelessly dropped points can prove fatal and there is an air of competitive edge right from the start.

It also helped that the competition enjoyed a fine first week. There were goals -- a total of 43 in the 16 matches, and the only game with less than two was the hard fought 1-0 win of Argentine giants Boca Juniors at the extreme altitude of La Paz against The Strongest of Bolivia.

Along with the goals there were also some epic storylines. Reigning champions Palmeiras of Brazil appeared in complete control away to Universitario of Peru, two goals ahead and cruising, but they had a man sent off and almost immediately lost their lead. In a tough group, dropping two points against the weakest side would put the team under early pressure, but right at the last Palmeiras eased their nerves and claimed all three points with a goal from a corner.

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Flamengo of Brazil, the 2019 winners, also found themselves in trouble away to Velez Sarsfield in Argentina. Flamengo fell behind twice and needed all the brilliance of their attacking resources to pull a 3-2 win out of the fire. In the same group, Chile's Union La Calera fought a pulsating 2-2 draw at home to LDU of Ecuador in a game played at a splendidly frenetic rhythm.

There was less quality on the field when Venezuela's Deportivo La Guaira hosted Atletico Mineiro of Brazil, but the game was pure drama. The Venezuelans took the lead against strangely sluggish opponents who took half an hour to get going. Once Atletico found their stride, though, the game was almost absurdly one-sided, with La Guaira defending heroically as they were pinned back in their own penalty area. The Brazilians equalised, but when most were imagining a comfortable away victory, La Guaira found their counter attack and only a couple of fine late saves from the Atletico keeper ensured that a gripping rollercoaster of a match finished as a draw.

Few would have predicted that Atletico would drop points, but the Libertadores always has surprises. On the opening night, Barcelona of Ecuador travelled to meet Santos of Brazil, last year's beaten finalists, and were full value for a comprehensive 2-0 win.

That match was played on a pitch which suffered the effects of driving rain -- and the same was true of the playing surface in Colombia on Thursday when Atletico Nacional hosted Chilean champions Universidad Catolica. The heavy field was not ideal for a team which can move the ball with a subtle lightweight touch, but in the first half Atletico Nacional threw off such impediments and were as impressive as anything on offer all week as they cruised to a 2-0 triumph.

The opening week of the Libertadores, then, had plenty to celebrate, with some fine football and stirring narratives. It whetted the appetite for the next few weeks, when all concerned will be striving to qualify -- on merit -- for a place in South America's quarterfinals.