Three frenetic weeks have gone by, and there are three more to come. The group phase of this year's Copa Libertadores is being played at breakneck speed, and with the action now at the halfway point, it is an appropriate moment to float some early conclusions.
One is that trends of economic power have well and truly arrived in the Libertadores. The Brazilian clubs have deeper pockets than their continental rivals. They can bring in talent from the surrounding countries and bring back quality players from Europe. Since the competition changed to a year-long format in 2017 a duopoly has been developing. Argentina and, especially, Brazil have a stranglehold on the tournament, and this year the Brazilians look very strong.
Look at the results of the Brazilian sides at home this week: 4-0, 5-0 and 6-1. In all, their seven clubs have accumulated 14 wins and 3 defeats, scoring 51 goals - more than twice as many as the six from Argentina. Of course, it's not possible to win the Libertadores with easy wins in the group stage. Things will get much tighter as the competition progresses. But with six of the eight groups topped by Brazilians and only Santos struggling, there is already the guarantee of a huge contingent from the country in the knockout stages.
So who might stop them? Who could come through to challenge the likes of Palmeiras, Flamengo, Internacional and Atletico Mineiro?
Who might be the challengers?
The obvious names are the Buenos Aires giants, River Plate and Boca Juniors. Boca are looking competitive without as yet finding the form of two months ago, when they stormed to an extraordinary 7-1 victory away to an attractive Velez Sarsfield side. And River, struggling for goals, are missing the subtle buildup play of Nacho Fernandez who, in a sign of the times, left to join Atletico Mineiro in Brazil.
One of the big surprises so far have been Gabriel Milito's Argentinos Juniors, a modest Buenos Aires club, who have won all three games in a tough group without conceding a single goal. Their latest triumph came against Atletico Nacional, who nevertheless look the best side to come out of Colombia since they won the trophy in 2016. The one win they have managed is the only victory so far achieved by the four Colombian clubs -- a striking statistic which may well, at least in part, be a consequence of the rise of Major League Soccer. Colombia has been losing players to Europe and Mexico as well as Argentina. The emergence of yet another buyer would seem to have weakened the domestic game.
Traditionally strong, the Paraguayans have been a disappointment. Their heavyweights, Olimpia and Cerro Porteno, both took maulings in Brazil this week, unable to cope with the pace and technique of the opposing attackers.
Other than Brazil and Argentina, only one country can claim more wins than defeats -- Ecuador, whose three representatives have won five and lost two. The altitude of Quito is a help, but that does not apply to Barcelona, from the port of Guayaquil, who are one of the only four teams with a 100% record. Even so, at the moment it is hard to see them, or Liga of Quito and Independiente del Valle, as genuine title contenders. The main threat to the Brazilians, then, would appear to be the prospect of the Argentines hitting form at the right time.
There are obvious issues, not to mention humanitarian dilemmas, with the determination to plough ahead with the Libertadores while the coronavirus pandemic is at its worst in South America. Thirty-two teams are criss-crossing the continent. There are risks of contamination, especially in terms of the spread of the Brazilian P1 variant. This week, Argentina's Defensa y Justicia played a game without 15 of their players, all out of action with coronavirus. Boca Juniors goalkeeper Esteban Andrada is currently stranded in Ecuador after testing positive while in the country.
Some matches have had their venue changed as a consequence of outbreaks. The local authorities in Bogota, the Colombian capital, stopped games from taking place in the city after a spurt in cases, and alternate venues had to be found in a hurry. Paraguay, the home of CONMEBOL (the South American Confederation), is the preferred choice.
A fresh problem added extra drama to the proceedings. A government scheme to raise taxes launched a wave of protests in Colombia, which then intensified as people reacted to what was perceived as heavy handed policing. Games scheduled for Colombia were moved to Paraguay, or, in the case of the match between Junior Barranquilla and Fluminense of Brazil, to Ecuador.
This is especially a worry for CONMEBOL. Co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia, the Copa America is due to kick off on June 13. COVID is providing enough headaches, but the protests are a new concern. The Copa final is set for Barranquilla -- the very city that has proved unable to stage a Libertadores match little more than five weeks before the Copa gets going.