Copa Libertadores 2020: Group Stage Review

Sports leagues around the world have had to adjust to conducting their competitions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s particularly challenging for a continental competition that takes place in multiple countries. For CONMEBOL to complete the remaining 96 group stage matches of the Copa Libertadores, in spite of the pandemic that continues to ravage through South America, is quite a feat.

At the end, we have the 16 teams that will compete in the knockout phase, just as in any other year. They are:

Flamengo (BRA)Independiente del Valle (ECU)Palmeiras (BRA)Guaraní (PAR)
Jorge Wilstermann (BOL)Athletico Paranaense (BRA)River Plate (ARG)Liga de Quito (ECU)
Grêmio (BRA)Internacional (BRA)Nacional (URU)Racing Club (ARG)
Santos (BRA)Delfín (ECU)Boca Juniors (ARG)Libertad (PAR)
The 16 group winners and runners-up in the 2020 CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores.

Brazil led with six teams in the final 16, followed by Argentina and Ecuador with three teams, Paraguay with two, and Bolivia and Uruguay with one representative apiece. Not terribly surprising except for the presence of a Bolivian club and three Ecuadorian clubs (which we’ll get into later).

What was the effect of conducting most of the matches behind closed doors? The following table summarizes the outcomes of the group stage matches over the last three seasons:

SeasonHome WinDrawAway Win
Home/Away team performance in Copa Libertadores group stage matches, 2018-2020 seasons.

The 2020 group stage saw just as many home team wins as the previous season, but a lot fewer draws (13.5% vs. 21.9% in 2019 and 26.0% in 2018), which resulted in the home team winning 1.73 points per game. Home teams this season earned 4.5% fewer points per game than home teams in the 2019 group stage, but slightly more than home teams in 2018. Before the COVID pause, home teams were winning 1.75 points per game (20 wins, 3 draws, 13 losses), so the effect of closed doors may have been a small one that was subsumed by other factors.

So what were the takeaways from this season’s group stage? In my view, they were the following:

Three Ecuador clubs in the last 16. It’s probably not much of a surprise to see Liga de Quito and Independiente del Valle in the knockout rounds. Independiente del Valle are the current Copa Sudamericana champions; Liga haven’t appeared in the Copa Libertadores group stage in several years but have an experienced squad this time around. The real surprise has been Delfín. It is easy to forget that Delfín are the defending champions of Ecuador’s Serie A. Halfway through the group stage, Delfín appeared to be among the weaker teams in the Libertadores, and their defensive record was indeed very poor. But they ranked 12th in xG/90 and won their last two matches while generating more than 2.0 xG. Carlos Garcés is the player to watch, but six different players scored Delfín’s six goals in the group stage.

Colombian/Chilean failure. This is actually a continuation of recent trends. Colombia and Chile had precisely one representative each in the knockout stages in 2018. Neither country has seen a club return since. Neither Colombia nor Chile saw a representative win more than two matches in the group stage, and the expected point totals (calculated from xG) indicated that the teams were in the final positions that they deserved. The only exception was Independiente Medellín, whose defensive record and expected points ran much worse than expected. Only one player with a Colombian or Chilean team was in the top 40 in total xG (Javier Reina and Fernando Zampedri), and only one player with a Chilean team had an xA in the top 50 (César Pinares). It doesn’t look like a club from either country will return to the latter stages of the Libertadores anytime soon.

Deportivo Binacional. Deportivo Binacional were bad. I mean, historically bad. Even though Binacional won a group stage match, which is unbelievable in itself, I would argue that, at W1 D0 L5 GF 3 GA 25, they were poorer than the 15 other sides that lost every match and had a goal difference worse than -10. They generated a grand total of 1.9 xG and allowed 37.0. Their xGA/90 was 5.77 — twice as bad as the next worst team Caracas FC. The home-and-away aggregate against River Plate was the most lopsided between two teams in the history of the Libertadores. Their highest-ranked player in terms of xG was defender John Fajardo (0.54 xG, 261th of 749 players with nonzero xG). Their highest-ranked striker was Marco Rodríguez Iraola, who generated 0.13 xG (597th).

Most unlucky: Defensa y Justicia and Peñarol. The Manyas earned the most points of any side that failed to advance from the group stage, but lost to every other side in Group C. Miguel Terans generated 2.6 xG, but scored no goals. Defensa y Justicia looked out of it with two early losses, looked good to qualify with two wins, and faded late with two losses. Their xG defense was well above average, but opponents converted their chances at a much greater rate than average. São Paulo was an honorable mention. They had the misfortune of being in a difficult group, but let’s face it — no side that loses to Deportivo Binacional deserve to advance to the knockout stage.

I’m not going to come up with a best XI from the group stage, but my list of top xG players include Ignacio Fernández (River Plate), Paolo Guerrero (Inter), Carlos Garcés (Delfín), Willian (Palmeiras), Eduardo Salvio (Boca Juniors), and Rafael Borré (River). Brazilian players dominate the top xA creators, notably Maicon (Grêmio), Éverton Ribeiro (Flamengo), Jean Pyerre (Grêmio), Willian Arão (Flamengo), Edenílson (Inter), and Mateus Henrique (Grêmio).

So who are my favorites to win it all? As in most years, I expect the finalists to feature Argentine and Brazilian clubs, in particular Boca Juniors, Internacional, Grêmio, Flamengo, and River Plate. If one team from outside the South American giants is to crash the establishment, it could be Independiente del Valle. And given that the country of the team winning the Copa Sudamericana has won the following year’s Copa Libertadores since 2012, why not?

Data in this post supplied by DataFactory Latin America.