Following three long months of arduous competition, the field for this year's Copa Libertadores de America has been whittled down to 16. And with the eight third-round ties kicking off next week, there is precious little breathing space for the remaining contenders. Even so, this is the perfect opportunity for FIFA.com to take stock of the 2008 Copa race so far and set the scene for what promises to be an exciting denouement .
Runners and riders
There were no major surprises as the group phase unfolded. In fact, no fewer than nine of the 16 sides who have now made it through to the latter stages of the competition are previous winners. And as you might have expected, Brazil and Argentina figure large on the list of qualifiers, with both countries boasting five representatives each, although the Albicelestes did see Arsenal fall by the wayside in Group 8.
The star performers were Fluminense, who amassed 13 points in Group 7 to earn themselves the right to contest their second-leg ties in Rio de Janeiro. Fellow favourites Boca Juniors and Sao Paulo endured something of a struggle, however, and had to wait until the final rounds of games to confirm their place in the next round. The only new boys to join them were Lanus, last season's surprise Argentinian champions. Here is the line-up in full:
Brazil: Fluminense, Flamengo, Cruzeiro, Sao Paulo and Santos.
Argentina: River Plate, Estudiantes, San Lorenzo, Lanus and Boca Juniors.
Mexico: Atlas and America.
Colombia: Cucuta Deportivo and Atletico Nacional.
Ecuador: LDU Quito.
Wish you were here
Just as in any competition, there were a handful of familiar faces making an early exit, among them Guadalajara and Libertad. Semi-finalists in 2005 and 2006, ElRebaño Sagrado failed to make the grade in Group 6 and were edged out by Cucuta and Santos FC, while the Paraguayans, who reached the last four in the last two seasons, finished bottom of Group 8. One place above them were 2007 Copa Sudamericana champions Arsenal, who paid for a sluggish start to become the only Argentinian side to miss out. The absence of Cienciano and Colo Colo in the last 16 has also raised a few eyebrows, with Peru and Chile seeing all their representatives crash out during the group phase, along with those of Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela.
The second phase once again underlined the enormous strength in depth of South American football and its ability to cope with the now-familiar mid-season exodus to Europe. Fluminense were bolstered by the skills of Thiago Neves, while Cruzeiro's hopes were borne by the fearsome strike partnership of Ramires and Marcelo Moreno, who have contributed 13 of their 17 goals so far. Carrying the flag for Estudiantes and Atlas were Juan Sebastian Veron and Bruno Marioni respectively, and Radamel Falcao and Rodrigo Palacio shone brightly for Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors. And with the likes of Adriano of Sao Paulo, Flamengo's Bruno and Richard Morales of Nacional all lining up for the last 16, standards are sure to be maintained over the coming weeks.
Including the preliminary round a total of 118 matches have so far yielded a tally of 308 goals, an average of 2.85 per game. Cruzeiro's in-form goalgetter Moreno is the top scorer with eight goals, followed by Sebastian Abreu of River Plate on six. The scorer of a hat-trick against Universidad San Martin of Peru, the Charrúa hitman is one of three men to complete the feat during the group stages, Matias Urbano and Mauricio Molina also grabbing respective trebles for Cucuta and Santos against luckless San Jose.
Other landmarks included the tournament's 4,000th match, played out between Audax Italiano and Sportivo Luqueno on 19 February, and the 11,000th goal, an honour that fell to Diego Cervantes during America's 4-3 win over River Plate on 2 April.
The third round kicks off next Tuesday with the following eight ties being played out over two legs:
Atletico Nacional (COL) - Fluminense (BRA)
Nacional (URU) - Sao Paulo (BRA)
Lanus (ARG) - Atlas (MEX)
Boca Juniors (ARG) - Cruzeiro (BRA)
America (MEX) - Flamengo (BRA)
Santos (BRA) - Cucuta Deportivo (COL)
San Lorenzo (ARG) - River Plate (ARG)
LDU Quito (ECU) - Estudiantes (ARG)