As South America moves into the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores, three trends in the continent's football are starkly apparent.
One is the rise of Brazilian super-clubs, another is the relative decline of a number of other South American leagues and the third is the surprising success of Ecuador -- with Barcelona de Guayaquil find themselves representing the rest of the continent against the Brazilian trio of Flamengo, Palmeiras and Atletico Mineiro.
Barcelona are away to Flamengo of Rio in this week's first leg, and the size of their task is made apparent by the statistics. The Ecuadorians have enjoyed a wonderful campaign, suffering two defeats in the ten games they have played, but that is one more loss than the Brazilian trio have suffered together. Palmeiras went down 4-3 at home to Defensa y Justicia of Argentina on a night when they fielded an under-strength side. Apart from that, the three Brazilian sides have carved their way through the continent, leaving crushed and bemused opposing defences in their wake.
Much the same has been happening at home. With the Brazilian championship around the halfway stage, Atletico Mineiro, Palmeiras and Flamengo are the top three.
This is a relatively new trend. The culture of Brazilian football likes to think of the country having 12 giant clubs -- four each from Rio and Sao Paulo, and a pair each from Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte -- but huge gaps have now opened up. Some have sunk (Botafogo, Vasco da Gama and Cruzeiro are all in the second division), while others have been able to leverage the size of their fan base into financial stability, attracted the interest of wealthy sponsors or have taken a punt and invested in a squad of frightening depth. Broadly speaking, Flamengo fit into the first category, Palmeiras the second and Atletico Mineiro the third.
Atletico won the Libertadores in 2013, Flamengo in 2019 and Palmeiras are the reigning champions. Even so, pressure is starting to build on their Portuguese coach, Abel Ferreira, and the two-legged clash with Atletico is vital to the immediate future of his side. Palmeiras trail Atletico by seven points in the league, and will drop to third place if Flamengo win their two games in hand. They were knocked out of the highly prestigious domestic cup in the early stages, while both Atletico and Flamengo are in the semifinals. Retaining their Libertadores crown, then, is their best bet of salvaging their season, but there is a feeling that they have been overtaken by the other two super-clubs.
Palmeiras have run up some huge wins in this year's Libertadores, especially at home. This, though, is when they can take their opponents apart on the counterattack. Otherwise, Abel Ferreira's side are a more cautious, less flamboyant outfit than Atletico or Flamengo. Their attacking limitations were cruelly exposed earlier this year in the Club World Cup, when in two games they barely created a chance. Bringing back attacking midfielder and club idol Dudu has given them a few more options, but where Flamengo and Atletico have been chasing big-name reinforcements, Palmeiras have been more cautious in the transfer market.
Atletico hit the jackpot with the signing of the veteran Hulk, so impressive in his new centre-forward position that he won a recall to the Brazil side earlier this month, ad now they have brought in Diego Costa to partner him. In this clash of the titans that kicks off the round on Tuesday, can Palmeiras overcome this glamour with their customary mix of careful defence and rapid breakouts? Will Palmeiras seek to press home advantage, or might Abel Ferreira be most concerned by the prospect of conceding an away goal?
It is worth mentioning that Atletico -- with just three goals conceded -- can boast the best defensive record in the competition, and have kept six consecutive clean sheets. The key signing, though, has been in midfield. Brought in from River Plate, playmaker Ignacio Fernandez has been making the team play and has forged a fine understanding with Hulk. His presence in the Atletico side helps explain why the other leagues in South America are finding it hard to compete.
Atletico's gain was River Plate's loss. The Buenos Aires giants have been a consistent force in the Libertadores in recent times, but losing Fernandez was a real blow. Having to play against him was more than they could take. River lost 4-0 on aggregate to Atletico. Fernandez scored. Fellow Argentine midfielder Matias Zaracho scored twice. Also in the lineup are Eduardo Vargas from Chile, Jefferson Savarino from Venezuela and Junior Alonso from Paraguay.
Palmeiras have quality Paraguayans and Uruguayans in their lineup, and there are Uruguayans and Chileans playing for Flamengo. Brazil is scouting the rest of the continent better than ever, and with Major League Soccer also taking players -- while, put off by the price tag, largely leaving Brazil alone -- the rest of South America is falling behind.
In this scenario, the success of Ecuador is striking indeed. There would seem to be no administrative explanations; there have been plenty of backstage rows in Ecuador, including an ugly squabble over the identity of the FA president. And yet Ecuador is outperforming the rest -- including Colombia, with a population three times greater.
The altitude of Quito may be part of the explanation, but it has nothing to do with the success of Barcelona -- the first team from outside Brazil and Argentina to reach the semifinals twice since the year-long format was introduced in 2017. Set up -- as the name suggests -- by Catalan immigrants, Barcelona are from Guayaquil, down near the Pacific coast.
Their model of play is typical of the best Ecuadorian sides of recent times: They look to keep the pitch big, using fast and tricky wingers and powerful attacking full-backs, and they have an old-fashioned playmaker to pull the strings. There is still a 34-year-old born in Rosario wearing the No. 10 shirt for Barcelona -- Damian Diaz, a local idol who has recently taken out Ecuadorian nationality.
Both this year and in 2017, Barcelona have a good record against Brazilian opposition. With all their attacking power -- a dazzling 28 goals in 10 games -- Flamengo represent a tougher challenge. And since the quarterfinals, the Brazilians have added a trio from the Premier League: Andreas Pereira, Kenedy and now David Luiz, who may make his debut this week.
Barcelona's task on Wednesday will surely be to run down the clock and keep it tight enough to have a chance back at home in next week's second leg. They might be boosted by the fact that Flamengo have the worst defensive record in the field, but Wednesday is surely about whether Barcelona can defend well enough to give the continent a glimpse of a final that is not an all-Brazilian affair.