Botafogo know who they are, and it is working in Copa Libertadores
Three things from Thursday night at the Copa Libertadores.
1. Botafogo are a strong bet to reach quarterfinals
Botafogo of Rio have never won the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, or even reached the final, and they are taking part in the competition for only the fifth time.
This will come as a surprise to many. Together with Santos, Botafogo supplied many of the great names of the Brazil sides that won the World Cups of 1958, '62 and '70 -- Garrincha, Didi, Nilton Santos, Zagallo and Jairzinho, to name just five, were Botafogo stalwarts. Many remember the Botafogo-Santos clashes of that era carrying the same kind of anticipation as Barcelona-Real Madrid generates today.
But back then the Libertadores was not a priority for Brazilian clubs, who in some years declined to take part. And after a golden age in the 1950s and '60s, Botafogo slipped back, and have frequently been the fourth force in their own city. A year ago even their own supporters were anticipating a hard fight against relegation in the Brazilian league. But then, promoted from the youth ranks to take charge of the first team, came Jair Ventura, son of 1970 legend Jairzinho. Fortunes changed. They ended up finishing fifth, qualifying for the Libertadores, and have now battled their way to within sight of the quarterfinals. A 1-0 win away to Nacional of Uruguay in the first leg puts them in a strong position.
Jair Ventura's Botafogo have no pretension of serving up a feast for the purists. They are a limited side happy to play to their strengths. It is not a team of flowing passing moves but of tough defence and quick breaks. The first-half goal that beat the Uruguayans was pure 2017 Botafogo. They won the ball deep and quickly played forward to their left winger, Rodrigo Pimpao. He struck a diagonal ball from deep, looking for the right-side midfielder Bruno Silva to burst forward. Bruno Silva swept a shot that deflected off a defender and gave midfielder Joao Paulo the chance to chip past the goalkeeper. None of these players are stars. All of them are useful in the collective context, aware of what they are trying to do and not attempting to do anything more.
Most of the game took place in their half of the field, and although Nacional -- a similar team in many ways -- came up with a couple of dangerous moments, Botafogo protected keeper Roberto "Gatito" Fernandez so well that he hardly had a shot to save.
2. Lanus can still travel home happy
Lanus had every reason to fear the worst when they took the field away to The Strongest of Bolivia. First, they were up against the extreme altitude of La Paz, 3,600 metres above sea level, where their hosts were unbeaten in their previous 17 international club games, winning 14 of them.
Secondly, the Argentines were taking a patched-up defence, with three of the normal back four unavailable. Midfielder Nicolas Pasquini improvised at left-back -- and from long range scored a stunning goal that gave Lanus the lead.
With the rarified air offering less resistance than usual, the ball tends to travel quickly and goals from range are common, but usually it is the visiting goalkeeper who is embarrassed. In this case Daniel Vaca was taken completely by surprise by Pasquini's superb strike. It was the only shot on target that Lanus managed, and until the 92nd minute it looked good enough to win them the game.
The Strongest were desperately disappointing. Their star players did not perform. Bustling midfielder Alejandro Chumacero seemed short of full fitness and was substituted, and playmaker Pablo Escobar looked all of his 38 years. They had mustered only two shots on target, well saved by Esteban Andrada. But right at the death they found a third, as Escobar's cross was delightfully flicked home by Diego Bejarano. It was a blow for Lanus, but had anyone offered them a 1-1 draw before kickoff they would surely have accepted.
3. Where will the challenge to Brazil and Argentina come from?
With Lanus claiming a draw, fellow Argentines San Lorenzo winning 1-0 away to Emelec of Ecuador and Botafogo beating Nacional, it was a very good night for the continent's traditional top two nations. There is now a strong possibility that all eight of the quarterfinalists will come from these two nations -- not an especially healthy development for the competition.
Who is most likely to break the Brazil-Argentina duopoly? Two teams will travel south for next month's return games hoping they can hang on to a first leg lead. Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia beat Atletico Mineiro 1-0 on Wednesday. But Wilstermann lost all their away games in the group phase, and the Brazilians will still consider themselves the favourites. Barcelona of Ecuador are a better bet. A side that excel on the counter-attack, they carry realistic hopes of being able to shock Brazilian champions Palmeiras, defend their 1-0 lead and ensure that at least three countries are represented in the competition's last eight.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.