Prepare for some twists and turns
The time has arrived in South America when fans all over the continent will need a calculator in one hand and the phone number of a cardiologist in the other.
This is the last week of the group phase of the Copa Libertadores, the continent's equivalent of the Champions League. Of the eight groups, four have been completed, while the rest have their last round coming up on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
The action has been tight and competitive. Of the 32 teams, only two are still unbeaten. Of the 16 places available in the knockout phase, nine have been taken. Thirteen teams are chasing the remaining places - with varying degrees of desperation.
Holders Internacional of Brazil are nearly home and dry. A draw at home to Emelec of Ecuador will suffice, although the visitors, who need a win, should not be written off. Emelec coach Omar Asad is an interesting figure but the Argentine's team lacks firepower, which is hardly surprising given strikers Jaime Ayovi and Joao Rojas have been sold to Mexican clubs.
Emelec must do without the talents of Joao Rojas. Photo: Getty Images
Inter have a fascinating coach of their own. Falcao, the elegant midfielder best remembered for his displays in the 1982 World Cup, has returned to lead the team after nearly two decades of media work. It would take a major upset to deny his team a place in the knockout stage.
Brazilian Cup winners Santos also look close, apparently saving themselves after a sticky start with last week's win away to Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. Now all Neymar and company need to do is pick up three points at home to the already eliminated Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela.
Reigning Brazilian champions Fluminense face a much more difficult task. They have only one win from five games, that sole victory coming when Deco came off the bench to inspire a late revival against America of Mexico. On Wednesday, Fluminese travel to Argentinos Juniors, who need a win to be sure of qualification.
This always looked like a difficult group - Nacional of Uruguay are the fourth team - but few expected that, with a game to go, Fluminense would be bottom. Backed by a generous sponsor, the traditional Rio team have assembled a squad that, on paper, looks at least as strong as the one that lost on penalties in the 2008 Libertadores final.
Most of Fluminense's problems this year have been self-inflicted. A change of president has caused instability, while coach Muricy Ramalho resigned, launching an attack on the club's training and medical facilities. He may have a point but Fluminense won last year's Brazilian title with the same structure.
It should surely not be beyond the current Fluminese team to produce at least one convincing display in this year's Libertadores. Even if that happens against Argentinos Juniors, there is a chance that it might come too late.
Fluminense's chances are dependent on what happens in the other game, played at the same time. If Nacional win at home to America, all of Fluminense's efforts will have been in vain. If the game ends in a draw, then the Brazilians need to win by a two-goal margin. With all four teams in the fight, there is the promise of drama to the end.
That is also true of Tuesday, when Colombia's Once Caldas, whose campaign seems to come with the guarantee of drama, visit San Martin of Peru.
The Colombians are coached by Juan Carlos Osorio, who spent five years on the coaching staff at Manchester City. There seems to be a strong English influence in the way that he constructs his team. There is little old style Colombian midfield elaboration about Caldas. They play a centre-forward and two strikers on the flanks, seeking to get the ball quickly into attacking wide spaces.
In domestic competition, the formula has worked wonderfully well - despite the club's grave financial crisis. Wages were paid late but Once Caldas still fought their way to the Colombian title last December. Key players were sold and Osorio got on with the business of rebuilding his team. They were top of the table once more until a couple of recent defeats and remain well in contention to defend their title - even though the cash crisis continues. Wages are still not being paid on time, prompting suggestions that the players would not travel to Peru for Wednesday's crunch game.
Like Fluminense, Once Caldas have to win their match and hope for the right result in the other. Whatever happens in Lima, they will be eliminated if San Luis of Mexico manage a win away to the already qualified Libertad of Paraguay.
There would be an element of poetic justice if Once Caldas are able to save themselves. If football was a game of 90 minutes - or even 92 - then the Colombians would not be bottom. They would already have guaranteed their place in the knockout stage.
Juan Carlos Osorio was once on the coaching staff of Manchester City. Photo: Getty Images
Incredibly, Osorio's team have conceded 93rd- or 94th-minute equalisers in three of their last four matches. When it happened for the third time, the Once Caldas coach cut an almost comic figure in his moment of tragedy, jumping up and down on the touchline in a mixture of anger, disappointment and disbelief.
After all that, if one team deserves to keep alive their Copa Libertadores hopes in this week of the calculator and the cardiologist, then it is surely Once Caldas of Colombia.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I'd be intrigued to hear your thoughts on the similarities and differences between Paulo Henrique Ganso and Javier Pastore. They seem to have similar attributes and play in virtually the same starting position. Their futures seem tied to one another, with some reports stating that Fiorentina are hoping to replace Pastore with Ganso when they sell the former, while others have both of them going to massive clubs. Who do you rate as the greater talent? Obviously, Pastore is further along in his development but I'd like to know your thoughts all the same.
A) It is an interesting comparison. There are many similarities and one key difference - Ganso is left-footed - while, as you say, Pastore is further down the line at the moment. He's been a surprise with how quickly and easily he adapted to Italian football. Even Angel Cappa, his coach when he caught the eye at Huracan, doubted his capacity to do it.
I doubt that Ganso would be interested in going to a club like Palermo. The hype around him is huge. He wants to go to Europe in the near future - and it's likely to be straight to a massive club. This could be a gamble. Pastore has benefited from his time with Palermo and is now ready for the next stage. If Ganso goes to a massive club, he is in the deep end struggling with the problem all South American playmakers face when they make the move to Europe - less time and space to decide what to do with the ball. He was a disappointment in this respect in the 2009 World Youth Cup. It will be fascinating to see how he deals with this question when the time comes.
Q) What are your thoughts on current Parma and Brazil Under-20 player Zé Eduardo? How do you rate him as a prospect? In your view, is he the type of central midfielder who is capable of creativity and invention, providing quality passes? Or is he more of a player who specialises in marking rather than passing?
A) On the evidence of the last two South American Under-20 Championships, he is strictly the latter - a marking specialist who stands out for his size and his physical vigour. In fact, I was a bit surprised to see him feature in the recent Under-20s. He is the type of central midfielder that the current Brazil regime are trying to get away from. Sure enough, he was dropped after looking strong but very limited in the group phase.