Caracas upset Libertadores order
The winners of Europe's strongest two leagues square up in the Champions League on Wednesday with the continental title at stake - and the traditional powers in South America are also coming through strongly.
Between them, clubs from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have claimed the Copa Libertadores title in all but seven of the first 49 editions. This year, the 50th, the historic big three can boast seven of the eight quarter-finalists, six of them former champions.
Confirming the recent trend of its dominance, Brazil have half of the last eight (Gremio, Sao Paulo, Cruzeiro and Palmeiras). Confirming the recent trend of its weakness, Argentina has just one, Estudiantes.
And Uruguay are enjoying a mini-resurgence. So strong in the early years of the competition, it has been 20 years since a Uruguayan club reached the semi-finals. But with Nacional and Defensor in the last eight, there's a chance that run will be brought to an end.
That leaves one place for the rest of the continent. And, as so often in the Libertadores, it has gone to the surprise package, Caracas FC of Venezuela, who have made the quarter-finals for the first time.
Venezuela was the last South American country to get the football bug. The poor boy's vision of sport as a means of social ascension exists in the country, as it does all over the continent.
But in Venezuela the hopes are much more likely to be deposited in baseball. The field of dreams has a pitcher's mound rather than a goal at either end. Football has long existed in the country but it has been associated more with European immigrants, frequently of a more middle class background than the locals.
This was especially true in the capital. Caracas was not seen as a football hotbed. The game's historical stronghold in Venezuela has been in cities of the west, close to the Colombian border, such as San Cristobal and Merida.
And yet Caracas FC have now established themselves as the undisputed top dogs in Venezuelan football. The club only turned professional in 1984, but they have won nine of the last 17 league titles, and are in this year's final as well, drawing Saturday's first leg 1-1 with Deportivo Italia. A win in Sunday's return match will bring title number 10.
Sustaining this kind of success has allowed them to build up a sound support base. The exploits of Caracas FC have belatedly helped transform Venezuela's capital into a city of football as well as baseball.
First class administration would seem to be the secret. It is no co-incidence that the run of success began in the early 90s, with the 1991/92 league title. At the end of the previous decade the club was taken over by Guillermo Valentiner, a businessman from the pharmaceutical sector who has a lengthy history as a backer of sports. His resources, commitment and administrative experience have been of huge importance.
More than any other club in Venezuela, Caracas have taken the long term view and invested in youth development. They are a club who produce players - not world-class stars yet, though that might come.
The last big sale was highly-talented young attacking midfielder Ronald Vargas, who has just come through his first season with Bruges in Belgium. Cesar Gonzalez, in the Huracan side playing so attractively in Argentina, is another graduate.
Long-term planning, commitment to youth development, stability - pillars of the club's approach embodied by coach Noel Sanvicente. A former international, he cut his teeth with Caracas' youth teams before taking the top job in 2002.
All across South America there are very few - if any - coaches who have been in charge of a big club for seven years. In this case there is no confusing stability with stagnation. Sanvicente exudes ambition.
Two years ago in the Libertadores his team beat Argentina's River Plate home and away. Then in the second round they gave Brazil's Santos a huge fright before succumbing 5-4 on aggregate. Now they have overcome that second round hurdle, and the coach is convinced they can go further.
It will take some heroics. Caracas are up against Gremio of Brazil, probably the most impressive team so far in this year's competition.
Keeper Vega is something of a showman. He has days when he catches everything, and others when he is not so reliable. Against Gremio's aerial power only the first will be good enough.
Uruguayan centre-back Barone will have to be at his combative and organisational best, and Caracas will hope his defensive partner Rey can strike gold with one of his famous long-range free kicks. Argentine attacking midfielder Figueroa is the key man in possession and the pace of Renteria could be important up front.
Wednesday's first leg is crucial. Caracas have been a home town side in this competition, with a 100% record in front of their own fans. Gremio, incredibly, are 100% away. But apart from the long journey north, Caracas offers a further hazard. The pitch in the Olimpico stadium is in awful condition. It could prove a leveller.
And, if it goes to form and Gremio come out on top over the two legs, there is no need for Caracas to despair. One, they have gone further than ever before. Two, they have already booked their place in next year's Libertadores.
Comments on today's piece in the space below. Any other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) I wanted your opinion on a player I have seen a bit of this season in La Liga, Juan Albin of Getafe. A Uruguayan I believe. Whenever I have seen him I have liked his style, a second striker who comes from wide well and seems to be at the heart of most of his team's good moves, does he have a decent reputation back home?
Neil Jones, Liverpool
A) He came up the youth ranks with Uruguay and played briefly for one of the big two, Nacional, before heading for Europe. I picked him out as one to watch in World Soccer magazine after the 2005 South American Under-20 Championships.
What really stood out at the time was his superb free kicks. His overall contribution left something to be desired, though - I recall his coach telling me that Albin needed to become more mature as a person.
I haven't seen much of him since he moved, though from what you're saying he seems to be making progress. Surprising, then, that he didn't make the Uruguay squad for next month's World Cup qualifiers. He got a call up last time, but they've now left him out.
Q) A couple of months back you profiled the success and failures of Brazilian coaches in Europe. You overlooked outgoing Monaco coach Ricardo who also coached Bordeaux.
How do you rate him?
Ricardo Gomes was very impressive as a centre back, and he comes across as a good bloke too. He coached some clubs in Brazil - I liked his work with Juventude, not so much with Flamengo and Fluminense - but he really soured his reputation over here when he made a right mess up of the Brazil Under-23s, who he was unable to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.
I haven't followed his work closely in France, though I am reliably informed that the quality of football played by Bordeaux improved dramatically when he was replaced by Laurent Blanc.
One of the main points in that piece you mentioned - the difficulty Brazilian coaches seem to be facing in Europe - was that it's proving hard for them to deal with multi-national squads. If this is to be broken down, then it's likely to be done by Brazilians like Ricardo Gomes who have played in Europe and are used to cosmopolitan dressing rooms.