The two-week qualifying round has certainly whetted the appetite for the group phase of the Copa Libertadores, which gets underway next Tuesday. The competition lacks much of the quality and polish of its European equivalent, the Champions League. Nevertheless, it remains compulsive viewing and the past fortnight has provided a few reminders.
The Caracas pitch was a disgrace for the side from the Venezuelan capital's home game against Huracan of Argentina. The crowd was sparse in Asuncion's Defensores del Chaco stadium played host to Guarani of Paraguay against Independiente del Valle of Ecuador. Even so, those who followed the action will remember the games for a long time to come -- although, in both cases, most of those who were inside the ground would rather forget.
A late goal put Caracas 2-1 up on aggregate against Huracan, who were down to ten men. The stage was surely set for a rare Venezuelan triumph but in stoppage time, Huracan found the nous to come up with one last attack and Diego Mendoza's header sent them through on the away goals rule.
In Paraguay, Guarani went into stoppage time behind on the away goals rule. The problem seemed to have been resolved when after 50 minutes of the second half they were awarded a penalty. Up stepped their veteran Uruguayan Hernan Rodrigo Lopez, a Libertadores winner in 2002 with Olimpia when he scored in penalty shoot-outs in both the semifinal and the final. He would surely be immune to the pressure -- but he blasted the last kick of the game over the bar and so it is Independiente del Valle who advance.
The pure drama of this is augmented by what is at stake. For the losing clubs, going out at this stage is a loss of what would be six significant paydays in the group phase. And with the Libertadores so unpredictable, there is always the dream that a club, however modest, can pick up momentum and put in a challenge as Guarani did last year, when they went all the way to the semifinals. Their race this year, though, has ended at the first hurdle.
The field of 32 who go into the group phase includes just one team playing in the Libertadores for the first time: River Plate of Uruguay, who overcame Universidad de Chile 2-0 on aggregate in the qualifying round. The Chileans, semifinalists in 2010 and 20112, have been struggling of late. Even so, their elimination was probably the biggest surprise of the round, and is a notable coup for the little Uruguayan team coached by the always interesting Juan Ramon Carrasco. River Plate kick off the group phase on Tuesday at home to Palmeiras of Brazil; it will be fascinating to follow their progress.
As is the case with most Uruguayan clubs these days, the squad is largely formed by a mixture of grizzled veterans and promising youngsters. 39-year-old Cristian Gonzalez helped hold their defence together for the 0-0 draw in the second leg in Santiago while 17-year-old Nicolas Schiappacasse kicked in with some attacking flair. Speaking of him...
The young talent
Schiappacasse was highly impressive in both games, featuring on the wing in the home game and in more of a central role in the second. He has an electric turn of pace and seems to know no fear, clearly one to watch. There are plenty of others. Indeed, the showcase it gives to the next generation is one of the most important things about the Libertadores.
Ecuador's Independiente del Valle are a small club specialising in youth development; 21-year-old striker Jose Angulo is full of pace and power and has played his way into the senior Ecuador squad. Central midfielder Jefferson Orujuela, a year older, may be on the same path while their 18-year-old left-winger, Bryan Cabezas, is an interesting work in progress.
In contrast, Yerry Mina, centre-back for Colombia's Santa Fe, is practically a veteran at the age of 21. He shone last year both in the Libertadores and in his club's triumphant Copa Sudamericana campaign -- so much so that it is a mystery that he has not attracted a wave of offers. He will never be the most stylish of centre-backs but he is a monster in the air, winning the big headers in both penalty areas -- as he demonstrated with his three headed goals against Oriente Petrolero of Bolivia in the qualifying round. For the time being, Mina is the competition's unlikely leading marksman.
Yet there is one young face that will not be seen again in this year's competition. Wuilker Farinez of Caracas is not 18 until Monday. Very few goalkeepers are handed first-team responsibilities at this age but Farinez showed very clearly why Venezuela have such high hopes for him. He was part of the national team squad at last year's Copa America and in high pressure games against experienced opposition, he was lithe and athletic and always prepared to orientate his defence.
With Caracas suffering that last-gasp elimination Farinez will play no further part in the 2016 Libertadores. But he is definitely going places, and this year's qualifying round has helped him along the way.