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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.
Paraguayan champions Cerro Porteño did atrociously last year, picking up just 1 point as they finished bottom of their group, and should do better despite being in a tough group to call. Former Spain international striker Dani Guiza is one of the more recognisable names but Francisco Arce has rejuvenated the squad with the likes of young dangerman Angel Romero and promising centre back Teodoro Paredes. The Azulgrana won the league by 11 points without losing a single game and could mount a decent campaign should they turn up.
With their 2013 Apertura triumph, O’Higgins won their first ever Primera division title to qualify for the Libertadores and under the guidance of talented manager Eduardo Berizzo – a former assistant to Marcelo Bielsa – have one of the best managers around. Named in honour of the country’s founding father Bernardo O’Higgins, the side from Rancagua have lived a nomadic life in recent times as their ground is refurbished for the Copa America but didn’t hamper their historic league success. Playing a high-tempo 4-2-1-3, Chilean connoisseur Joel Sked has tipped El Capo de Provincia to be the best performing Chilean side.
Recently nationalised Pablo Hernandez is an a typical number 10 and provides the creativity spark while señor Sked waxes lyrical about U20 international holding midfielder Carlos Fuentes. Tall journeyman Pablo Calandria was top scorer last season and spearheads the attack, flanked by Gonzalo Barriga and Luis Pedro Figueroa, who in turn are supported by pacey full backs. The loss of Julio Barroso to Colo Colo is a major loss but nevertheless O’Higgins will be a fascinating side to watch in a highly competitive group.
Deportivo Cali make their first Libertadores appearance since 2006, qualifying as second-best placed Colombian side. 42-year-old Faryd Mondragon is still going strong between the posts, having returned to the national squad recently, while Southampton and Portsmouth fans will recognise the name Jhon Viafara lining up for the Tromba Verde. The addition of Paraguayan striker Robin Ramirez, so deadly at Deportes Tolima a couple of years back, should give them added potency up front. Having said that, due to the quality in the group, I can’t see them realistically progressing too far in the competition.
Copa Sudamericana champions, Lanus, take the last group place having comfortably seen off Caracas in the first round. Barros Schelotto’s men have been consistent performers in the Primera, regularly among the title contenders, and following their recent continental success they will hope for another good cup run. Defensively very solid with Agustin Marchesin in goal and centre back pairing of Paolo Goltz and Carlos Izquierdoz they are difficult to break down and can count on good experience and balance in midfield with Somoza, Ayala, Ortiz and Gonzalez. This will be improved further with the arrival of Alejandro Silva – one of the standouts of last year with runners up Olimpia – and the emergence of some good prospects such as Pasquini, Benitez and Astina.
Furthermore they’ve added goals to their game, finishing top scorers of the Inicial following the arrival of Santiago Silva, Lautaro Acosta and Lucas Melano. You feel that whoever makes it out of this group has the potential to be dark horses in the tournament and the Granate will certainly fancy their chances.
Reigning champions Atletico Mineiro will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing World Club Cup and recreate their heroics from twelve months ago. Pint-sized livewire Bernard has gone but a large portion of the title-winning squad remain: Talisman Ronaldinho has signed a new contract and will be the heartbeat of the team, while goalkeeper Victor and impressive centre back Rever form the defensive spine, strengthened by the arrival of Nicolas Otamendi on loan. Roving right back Marcos Rocha stretches the play with his tireless running and Leandro Donizete plays an important role linking defence and attack, starkly emphasised by his absence in the World Club Cup, while up front Diego Tardelli and the rejuvenated Jo will ask questions of the tightest of defences. No side has retained their crown since Boca in 2001 but could Galo be the side to change that?
Colombian side Santa Fe were somewhat of a surprise package as they reached last year’s semi-finals but still had to negotiate a difficult first round, squeezing past Morelia on away goals. Playmaker Omar Perez was the man whose fantastic free-kick earned El Expreso Rojo the all-important away goal in Mexico and he will be crucial to their chances this time around. With Wilder Medina, Edison Mendez and Luis Seijas all arriving at El Campin, Santa Fe should fancy their chances of making the knock out rounds again.
Paraguayan Apertura champions Nacional Asuncion welcome back Julian Benitez after a disappointing spell in Ecuador and will hope the hitman can rediscover the form that helped them qualify. He will also be joined by ex-Olimpia forward Fredy Bareiro to share the goalscoring burden, while the likes of Torales and Melgarejo will chip in from midfield. La Academia will hope to push Santa Fe for 2nd place but may fall just short in what seems to be one of the more straightforward groups to predict on paper.
Although Zamora qualified as Venezuelan champions, it would still be a stretch of the imagination to see them qualify from the group. Juan Manuel Falcon and Panamanian Ricardo Clarke will be charged with getting the goals but young prospect John Murillo is also worth keeping an eye out for, as is midfielder Pedro Ramirez, who has already agreed to join Swiss side FC Sion at the end of the season.
An original version of this piece appeared on the writers own blog.