By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Flamengo and Botafogo, the two Rio representatives in the 2014 Copa Libertadores, are facing up to their respective fates two thirds of the way through the group stages. Only two games remain and the pair of Carioca outfits find themselves with contrasting fortunes.
In Group 2, Botafogo sit top with seven points from their four games so far. Importantly, they have won both their home games to give themselves an excellent chance of reaching the knock-out stages.
On Wednesday, April 2nd, the Glorioso play their final home game of the group against Unión Española of Chile. Three more points at the Maracanã should guarantee their safe passage to the next round.
Their final match is away to Argentine club San Lorenzo. A draw should mean they finish top and would have the advantage of playing the second leg of any knock-out tie at home.
Botafogo coach Eduardo Hungaro chose a controversial scheme for his players but the evidence shows it is paying off. Hungaro allowed the Campeonato Carioca, the Rio de Janeiro state championship, to slide with almost casual disregard. The club, despite being the defending champions, did not even come close to qualifying for the semi-finals. They finished in ninth place, having managed to amass only four wins from fifteen games and score sixteen goals.
The focus, from the very start of the year, has been the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the UEFA Champions League. In Botafogo’s first foray into the competition since 1996, a painful period of almost two decades, their focus on the continent’s premier football prize is thus far paying dividends.
Flamengo, on the other hand, face an uphill struggle to make progress in the Copa Libertadores. Having faced the ignomy of early elimination in 2012, history looks set to repeat itself two years later.
The Rubro-Negro sit bottom of Group 7, having won just one of their four games so far. To make matters worse, they face a daunting trip to Emelec of Ecuador in their next encounter – the very side who helped eliminate Flamengo at this stage 24 months ago.
That is followed by a home game against Léon of Mexico. The Mexicans lead the group and will be looking to book their place in the next phase with victory at home to Bolivar next week.
Flamengo meanwhile look to be paying the price for trying to fight on two fronts with limited resources. They easily topped the Campeonato Carioca group to make it to the semi-finals but that would be scant reward for early elimination from the Libertadores.
With only four points in the tournament to date, they will likely need maximum returns from their remaining two games to give them a chance of progress. But with the added pressure of a “must win” context, not to mention the quality of the opposition, the club have left themselves with a tall order.
Of the four other Brazilian sides in the competition, perhaps surprisingly it is current Brasileirão champions Cruzeiro who are paving the most difficult path to the next round. The Minas club sit third in Group 5 with four points from as many games.
Atlético-PR, Atlético-MG and Grêmio all top their respective groups. Up next for Grêmio is a table topping clash with Colombian club Nacional Medellin. Atlético-MG also travel to Colombia to take on Santa Fé, with Atlético-PR hosting Argentine outfit Velez Sarsfield. A win should mean they win the group outright.
Copa Libertadores Round 5 Games Featuring Brazilian Clubs:
Atlético-PR v Velez Sarsfield (ARG)
Botafogo v Unión Española (CHI)
Santa Fé (COL) v Atlético-MG
Universidad de Chile (CHI) v Cruzeiro
Nacional de Medellin (COL) v Grêmio
Emelec (ECU) v Flamengo