South American sides make capital gain
With Tottenham into the last eight and Chelsea likely to join them, London is in with another chance of ending its wait for the Champions League success.
But London is not the only capital city to have missed out on Europe's biggest club prize. Rome, Paris and Berlin have never won it either.
It is a different story in South America, where the continent's capital cities have had a stranglehold on the Copa Libertadores, their equivalent of the Champions League.
The explanation is straightforward enough.
Most South American nations are dominated by a single city, usually the port through which raw materials were exported and manufactured products brought in. Football is a game of the city, so the big clubs tend to be clustered in the capital.
Brazil is an exception. Its capital, Brasilia, is a modern city inaugurated in 1960, the same year that the Libertadores was launched. It has yet to produce a top-class team. Rio de Janeiro, the previous capital, has won the Libertadores, as have Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte, the other major footballing centres.
Elsewhere, the pattern is clear.
Buenos Aires in Argentina, Montevideo in Uruguay, Asuncion in Paraguay have frequently provided the winners of the Libertadores. Chile's title came courtesy of a team from Santiago, while Ecuador's from a side from Quito. Although a Peruvian club has never won the competition, it has had a couple of finalists, both from Lima.
Then there is Colombia.
Bogota, Colombia's capital and biggest city, provided major forces Millonarios and Santa Fe when professional football was launched in the country just over 60 years ago. Both reached the semi-finals in the first two years of the Libertadores. Since then, Bogota's fortunes have dipped. It is more than 20 years since the city claimed a domestic title.
Medellin and Cali, the next two biggest cities in Colombia, have emerged as the heartland of the game. Yet even they were eclipsed by the small provincial town of Manizales in 2004. Located in the country's coffee growing region and with a population of less than 400,000, Manizales was put firmly on the footballing map by Once Caldas, who overcame the big city giants to win the Copa Libertadores.
Once Caldas celebrate victory in the 2004 Copa Libertadores. Photo: Getty
It was hardly the most glamorous campaign in the competition's history. In their 14 games, Once Caldas managed 17 goals but conceded only 10. The figures tell the story. This was a title won with blanket defence. They set out to keep a clean sheet, to frustrate the opposition into losing discipline before striking with a sudden counter-attack or a long-range shot. They used the most efficient formula available to the small club.
The road that Once Caldas trod had been pioneered, with a few excesses along the way, by Estudiantes of Argentina. From La Plata, a city of about half a million and an hour's drive from Buenos Aires, Estudiantes had never even won the Argentine title until 1967. Yet for the next three years, they were champions of South America.
Most of the credit for this remarkable rise has to go to their coach, Osvaldo Zubeldia.
Ahead of his time, Zubeldia worked his players hard on physical preparation, while paying attention to detail. The team trained long and hard on set pieces, pioneering the use of free-kicks from the right taken with the left foot - and vice versa. They also complied dossiers on the opposition, working out which levers they could pull to provoke their rivals. With tight defence and a rapid counter-attack, Estudiantes came up with a winning mix, albeit one that was not always easy on the eye.
All of which makes the achievements of Santos all the more remarkable. Pele's old club probably remain the Brazilian team most famous abroad but they are nowhere near being one of the biggest. Santos is a port with a population of little more than 400,000, about an hour down a winding road from the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo.
The club have a limited catchment area and a rickety little stadium that holds about 20,000 and is frequently half empty. The fact that they have won the Libertadores is laudable. The style with which they did it makes the club extraordinary. Instead of small-team cynicism, Santos traded in big-time talent.
Pele was at his absolute peak when Santos won the cup in 1962 and 1963. But Santos were more than Pele. One of football's happiest accidents is the fact that a teenage Pele was surrounded by experienced world-class team-mates when he was thrown into pro football in the mid-1950s. His supporting cast in the 1960s was magnificent as well.
After 1965, Santos turned their back on the Libertadores, preferring to cash in on Pele by playing friendlies all over the world. After he retired, the club slid back to second rank, only reappearing in the Libertadores for one disastrous campaign in 1984.
Neymar dribbles through the Cerro Porteno defence. Photo: Getty
Over the last decade, though, Santos have re-emerged as a continental force. And once again the emphasis has been on exciting young talent. The side that boasted Diego, Robinho and Elano reached the 2003 final, falling in the quarter-finals the following year. Subsequently, the team have reached the semi-final once and the quarter-finals twice. This year, the sights are set higher.
Elano is back, Neymar has emerged and Paulo Henrique Ganso is returning from injury. If they all fire together, there should be no more attractive team in South America.
But the campaign has not started well. Santos drew their first two games and face a fascinating battle on Wednesday. They are away to Chile's Colo Colo, who have sparkled in attack and struggled in defence in their two matches.
The scene is set, then, for a wonderful spectacle, with Santos writing another chapter in their remarkable Libertadores history.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com. From last week's postbag:
Q) I watch Blackburn Rovers a lot and know that they signed Mauro Formica from Newell's Old Boys in January. I'm sure you will have seen him play in Argentina. Are you confident that he will be able to cope with the pace and intensity of the Premier League. Also, what is his best position? Is he better suited to play behind the striker or on the wing? How big a success do you think he will be for Blackburn?
A) I hope he comes off because he's a player I like a lot, although the doubt you raised about the pace and intensity of the Premier League is a legitimate concern. His natural position is behind the strikers - or lone striker - where he has something of the young Kaka about him - some thrust and an ability to shoot or set up the play off either foot. But he lacks Kaka's physique, so he might find his favourite spaces a bit congested in England, in which case it might be worthwhile shifting him wider. I think he could do well but he'll need time and patience.
Q) I was wondering if you could shed any light on the culture of defending in Brazil? When one pictures Brazilian defenders, it's usually marauding full-backs such as Carlos Alberto, Cafu, Roberto Carlos or Dani Alves. Although Brazil have produced some excellent centre-backs, such as Lucio or Aldair, there doesn't seem to be the same appreciation for centre-back play as in other cultures.
A) It is so easy here to slip into silly myths about happy-go-lucky Brazilians who don't care how many goals they concede. It's well wide of the mark. Brazil invented the modern back four, with the key concept of defensive cover. The 1958 World Cup side - perhaps the most stereotypically Brazilian one - did not concede a goal until the semi-finals and had a magnificent centre-back partnership of Bellini, who was a bit limited but excellent in the air, and the extremely classy Orlando Pecanha, who is still an idol in Argentina with Boca Juniors fans. It is because of the cover provided by the centre-backs and defensive midfielders that Brazil have been able to set free all those great attacking full-backs that you mentioned.