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2014 Copa Libertadores
The 55th edition of the Copa Libertadores – the South American equivalent of the Champions League – kicked off this week and, as ever, promises to be the customary rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills. The vast distances,not to mention the range of climates and altitudes, make it a highly testing, unpredictable and engrossing contest, while also offering the opportunity for a first glance at some of the continents’ emerging prospects.
A Ronaldinho-inspired Atletico Mineiro won their first ever title last year as Brazil continued their great recent record in the tournament, having now provided the last four victors. Nevertheless, there will be a whole host of clubs who fancy their chances of bucking this trend and getting their hands on South America’s most coveted trophy.
With the final spots now allocated, Outside of the Boot brings you a comprehensive group by group, four part preview to this year’s competition.
Argentinian ‘Super Champions’ Velez have been a regular fixture in the knock-out stages of the last four editions and will be confident of progressing from the group once again. El Fortin possess a strong squad with a settled and experienced backline, an energetic and youthful midfield, and a fearsome strike partnership of Mauro Zarate and Lucas Pratto. New signing Roberto Nanni gives them an extra option up front, while a renowned youth set up means they have plenty of youngsters ready to step up, with Ramiro Caseres looking the next most likely to make a name for himself.
However, they will have to find a way of replacing the creativity of outgoing playmaker Federico Insua – now at Independiente – and, perhaps more pertinently, the departure of long serving manager Ricardo Gareca, who stepped down from his post after a highly successful 5-year stint in Liniers. Velez have sought for continuity by replacing him with assistant Jose ‘Turu’ Flores but it will certainly be a big test in his first managerial role.
Joining them are the Peruvain Descentrilizado champions Universitario. Star of the show will be Raul Ruidiaz, back at hometown club on loan from Coritibia, and the fans will be hoping the ‘Peruvian Messi’ can emulate the impressive form he showed while at Sampaoli’s U de Chile side if los Cremas are to qualify. Ruidiaz aside, Universitario’s domestic success was built on youth and the likes of midfielders Rafael Guarderas and Christofer Gonzales are ones to watch.
While their name might be somewhat misleading, Bolivian side The Strongest will fancy their chances of causing an upset or two. Bottom of a difficult group last time out, the Apertura champions will have to take full advantage of their altitude-assisted home ties if they are to claim a few scalps. Veteran playmaker Pablo Escobar will pull the strings and look to feed the main goal threat, Colombian Jair Reinoso, while the return of Alejandro Chumacero on loan will bolster the midfield.
Having not appeared since finishing as runners up in 2005, Atletico Paranaense are back following a successful 2013 in which they came 3rd in the league and reached the Copa do Brasil final. However, coach Vagner Mancini was surprisingly not kept on and they only made the group stages by the skin of their teeth, scraping past Peruvian side Sporting Cristal on penalties after a 6-6 draw on aggregate. Former Arsenal midfielder Fran Merida will be on show for the Furacao but it will be star striker Ederson, top scorer in the Brasileirão,who most hopes are pinned on.
Atletico also have some bright prospects in U17 stars Mosquito and Nathan, who will give a glimpse of their talent from the bench, and have also signed Bruno Mendes from Botafogo. Though not part of the original Libertadores squad list, the much maligned Adriano, formerly of Inter Milan among others, could feature in a last ditch attempt to salvage his career. Whether he will be the latest to benefit from the redemptive power of the competition remains to be seen.
The last two years have seen Corinthians and Atletico Mineiro finally win their first Libertadores title, so with that in mind perhaps this year it is San Lorenzo’s turn to break their cup hoodoo. The only of Argentina’s Cinco Grandes yet to lift the coveted trophy, El Ciclon come into the tournament in good form having won the Torneo Inicial at the end of 2013 and boast an impressive squad with strength and depth. There is also a nice blend of experience, with the likes of Romagnoli, Piatti, Buffarini and Mercier, alongside exciting youngsters such as Angel Correa (detailed Scout Report here), Hector Villalba and Fernando Elizari. Angelo Correa featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014, he was at #16 in our list of attackers. Full list here. Carlos Valdes has been brought in to strengthen the defence while ex-Boca striker Nicolas Blandi and Mauro Matos will bolster the forward line with star striker Martin Cauteruccio still making his way back from injury.
Their only real departure was manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, who took over at Spanish giants Valencia, but new boss Edgardo Bauza certainly has proven credentials, having won the Libertadores back in 2008 with LDU Quito. After winning the league, all their focus will be on the Libertadores and with the Pope willing, los Cuervos on from the Vatican maybe, just maybe, it could be their year.
Chilean 2013 Clausura champions Union Española will start as underdogs in the group but are more than capable of giving the big names a run for their money. Under Jose Luis Sierra they’ve played some open, expansive football and with Argentinian strike partnership of Sebastian Jaime & Gustavo Canales will always be a danger. Villagra and Scotti are the ‘two pillars’ in centre of the park and gangly playmaker Oscar Hernandez is one to watch. New signing Carlos Salom has made a decent start for the club and Matias Campos Toro on loan will strengthen La Furia Roja further. Chilean football expert Joel Sked (@Sked21), though a fan of Sierra’s work, believes their progression has slowed somewhat since their title win and will probably struggle to qualify.
Botafogo return to the Libertadores for the first time since 1996 after they beat Deportivo Quito to reach the group stage. The Estrela Solitária overturned a 1-0 loss in Ecuador with a 4-0 home victory, thanks to a Wallyson hat-trick, to get them through comfortably in the end. The departure of Clarence Seedorf is a huge shame for the tournament as a whole and much of the creative responsibility will fall to Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro. Hyuri and Bruno Mendes have also left but the incoming Mario Bolatti, Airton, Juan Ferreyra and Wallyson will bolster the squad. It will also be interesting to see the much hyped Doria, a classy 19-year-old left-footed centre back, in action as well as midfielder Gabriel, reportedly a target for Porto. Doria featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014, he was at #15 in our list of defenders. Full list here. Perhaps the rookie under most scrutiny will be first-time boss Eduardo Hungaro as the Fogao will be expected to qualify despite a competitive group.
Ecuadorian runners up Independiente del Valle make up the group but are unlikely to qualify. Nevertheless, trips up to Sangolqui – on the outskirts of Quito – will be difficult for visiting teams and the likes Junior Sornoza and Jonathan Gonzalez are exciting prospects from a club that have produced a lot of talent in years gone by.
An original version of this piece appeared on the writers own blog.