Is the Copa Libertadores better than the Champions League?
There are people who argue that South America's Copa Libertadores is better than the Uefa Champions League. It's a perverse view, often motivated by bitterness - a bit like those who like to claim that The Beatles were over-rated.
The Champions League congregates the best players from all over the world - it's where they want to be, and where they need to shine these days in order to be considered truly great. But if Europe's leading club competition is Lennon and McCartney, it doesn't necessarily follow that the Libertadores is Herman's Hermits, as last week made abundantly and gloriously clear.
The reigning champions can be beaten in the Champions League - Barcelona can be spoiled and marked and frustrated, as they were by Rubin Kazan of Russia last October. But it's hard to imagine them being ripped apart in the group phase by rank outsiders, as happened to their South American counterparts in the Libertadores last Thursday.
Alianza Lima caused an upset by beating Estudiantes
It is only two months since Estudiantes of Argentina came within two minutes of causing a major upset by beating Barcelona and being crowned world club champions.
Then they got the defence of the Libertadores title they won last year off to a sound start, turning the screws on Juan Aurich of Peru in the second half to win 5-1. With Juan Sebastian Veron backed by Brana to win the ball, Perez to scurry down the right and Benitez with his elegant left foot on the other flank, there is probably not a better midfield in the continent - especially since the elegant Jose Sosa has been loaned back from Bayern Munich.
Last Thursday in Peru, Alianza Lima kicked off - and it took Sosa just seven seconds to charge down a forward punt and race away to score. Business as usual.
Alianza had surprisingly won 3-1 away to Bolivar of Bolivia in their first match, but surely they would be out of their depth now. Nothing much was expected of them going into the campaign.
The club had competed in the competition six times since the expansion in 2000 without reaching the knock out stages, and this year they had not qualified as champions of Peru. Giving away an early goal in such inept fashion would surely be an insurmountable blow to their morale.
Instead they hit back to win 4-1. Striker Wilmer Aguirre was impossible to mark. The Estudiantes defenders could not catch him to throw sand at his backside as he scored a hat-trick. And this is a player who spent two utterly unremarkable seasons in France with Metz, and spent most of last year on the Alianza bench.
The remaining goal was scored by big centre forward Jose Carlo Fernandez, who put in another impressive display to follow up a superb one the previous week against Bolivar.
Fernandez also spent two seasons in Europe - and came back from Russia and Belgium without a single league goal. In 2009 for Alianza he only managed three in 33 appearances, the last in July. And now in two Libertadores matches he already has three to his name.
Suddenly these two players - both of them three months short of 27 - have shot up a level or 10. Theirs is an extreme example, but it is wonderfully illustrative of the capacity the Libertadores has to surprise.
Teams can emerge from nowhere, players can find the key to unlock their natural ability. It all makes the Libertadores a much less predictable competition than the Champions League.
The other great virtue of the South American competition is the space it gives to youngsters on the way up - another aspect that was strongly highlighted last week.
Libertad have become a force in Paraguayan football over recent years, but have a very small support base. Their strategy is based on producing players and selling them on, and this year's crop looks very promising.
Last Tuesday's 4-0 win over Blooming of Bolivia as not a great night for their lanky left-footed striker Pablo Velasquez, so impressive in the three previous games as they fought their way through the qualifying round and then won away to Lanus of Argentina.
But gnat-like little Rodolfo Gamarra, 21, on the right flank was in fine form, greedy but excellent in one-against-one situations. And 22-year-old right wing back Victor Hugo Ayala looks an interesting prospect, curling in crosses like ex-national team right back Arce, and scoring with a ferocious free-kick.
With victory assured, Libertad gave a few minutes to a 16-year-old, Rodrigo Alborno, tall, strong and left footed, who produced a couple moments of breathtaking promise.
Banfield's Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez (right) is one to watch
And talking of strong, well-built players with an excellent left foot, Banfield of Argentina have a magnificent prospect in 18-year-old Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez.
He scored with a nice, clipped finish last Wednesday away to Deportivo Cuenca of Ecuador, after opening his account the week before against Morelia of Mexico.
Rodriguez looks tailor-made for European football, and may well be joining Udinese of Italy in the next transfer window. He is unlikely to be gracing the Libertadores for long.
The last three teams in the competition will make their debut this week - three Brazilian heavyweights, Internacional with an impressive squad, and the big two, Flamengo, with Adriano and Vagner Love, and Corinthians with Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos.
With some big names to enjoy, along with the surprise factor and the sneak preview of the up and comers, then perhaps a connection can be made between the Copa Libertadores and Herman's Hermits. As I settle down to follow the action, 'something tells me I'm into something good!'
Comments on the piece in the space provided. 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;
In one of your previous articles you briefly mentioned the high influx of Paraguayan players going to Mexican clubs.
As a Mexican, I grew up watching Jose Saturnino Cardozo shine in Toluca but as for other big name Paraguayan internationals, that was it. Now nearly every club in Mexico has a Paraguayan star in their team.
Even today my favourite club in Mexico, Pumas UNAM, has two Paraguayan players in Dario Veron and Dante Lopez who were vital in winning the league title recently.
Cristian Riveros is one of many Paraguayan players who have moved to Mexico
Why is it that so many players from Paraguay are coming to play in Mexico, and do you think the recent incident with Salvador Cabañas, who to me has been the closest to emulating what Cardozo did in Mexico, discourage Paraguayan players from coming to Mexico?
I doubt that the shooting of Cabanas - who I believe has now moved out of the intensive care unit - will have much effect on the trade. Paraguayan clubs need to sell, Mexican clubs have money to buy and the long move north has been good for lots of Paraguayan careers.
The main reason that so many have moved is that Mexican clubs have discovered what a good investment Paraguayan players can be. Some go to Europe, but not that many - perhaps they're frequently not the biggest players around and they can also be a bit shy. But so often they are excellent team players, battlers with increasingly, a good technical level as youth development work has improved in the country.
There are some Paraguayans in Mexico - Cristian Riveros of Cruz Azul is an obvious example, perhaps Edgar Benitez of Pachuca - who could do a good job in Europe. Credit goes to the Mexican clubs for snapping them up.
For Argentina at the Fifa World Cup 2010, who are the options at right back besides Marcos Angeleri?
Angeleri of Estudiantes is only just starting his comeback from long-term injury - and we'll have to see if this has affected his pace, which was his outstanding asset. For next week's friendly against Germany his club-mate Clemente Rodriguez has been called up but I really don't see him as a viable option.
Is there anyone better than Zanetti out there? I still wonder, bearing in mind the lack of full-back options on both flanks, whether Maradona will end up going with a back three.