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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.
Brazilian champions, Cruzeiro, must be considered one of the favourites after a dominant performance in last year’s Brasileirao, waltzing to the title playing some fast-paced, modern attacking football. In Dede, their marquee signing, they have arguably the best defender in South America but it is going forward where their quality really shines through. The likes of Dagoberto and Julio Baptista will be familiar names to most, while Everton Ribeiro was the revelation of 2013 and was rumoured to be wanted by Manchester United.
A Raposacan also count on the experience up front with Borges, Ernesto ‘Tecla’ Farias and Marcelo Moreno on their books too. Though Vinicius Araujo has moved to Valencia, they still have some exciting prospects such as Ricardo Goulart and Lucas Silva. After arch rivals Atletico Mineiro triumphed last year, Cruzeiro will be desperate to repeat their neighbour’s accomplishment and ensure the Copa remains in Belo Horizonte.
Uruguayan runners up Defensor Sporting could prove to be an interesting proposition in what is shaping up to be a very watchable group. El Violeta’s squad is absolutely packed with youngsters, many of whom have represented the national team at various levels. Defender Gaston Silva captained Uruguay at the U20 World Cup last summer and Federico Gino, Leonardo Pais and the talented Giorgian De Arrascaeta were all staples in the same Charrua midfield, while Ramon Arias and Adrian Luna appeared in the 2011 edition. Furthermore, Matias Jones returns to Uruguay after failing to make the grade in the Netherlands and Brazilian midfielder Felipe Conceicao is another to keep an eye out for. Inexperience could count against them but there are some old heads among the kids with Fleurquin, Olivera, Reguiero and Risso giving a nice balance.
Surprise package of last tournament, Real Garcilaso, defied the odds to reach the quarter-finals – the best performance by a Peruvian side in the last decade – and they should be taken more seriously this time around. Only formed in 2009, Fredy Garcia’s upstarts have provided a fresh approach in a country whose domestic league is hamstrung by debt and corruption. Paraguayan duo Fabio Ramos and Victor Ferreira are key players for La Maquina Celesteand despite being in a difficult group, write them off at your peril.
Universidad de Chile qualified by disposing of Paraguayan side Guarani, a victory which made them the first Chilean team to win in every country in the continent. Despite not being like the swashbuckling side that won the Sudamericana in 2011 and reached the 2012 Libertadores semi-finals, La U will be desperate to make amends for crashing out at the group stage last year. New coach Cristian Romero is hoping to bring the feel good factor back and return to the style that brought them so much success under Sampaoli.
Goalkeeper Jhonny Herrera and defensive stalwarts Osvaldo Gonzalez and Jose Manuel Rojas remain but Chilean football doyen Joel Sked doubts La U will seriously threaten the latter stages of the tournament due to the ongoing failure to replace metronome Marcelo Diaz, the loss of ‘el Principe’ Charles Aranguiz and a diminished penetration from the wings. Nevertheless, el Chunchocan still count on the likes of Gustavo Lorenzetti and Ramon Fernandez for some inspiration and in Isaac ‘Toro’ Diaz, Patricio Rubio, Rodrigo Mora and Sebastian Ubilla have options going forward. Romero’s appointment means youth, such as U20 internationals Igor Lichnovsky, Sebastian Martinez and Valber Huerta, will be given a chance too.
The dreaded ‘Group of Death’ will be one of the most highly anticipated in the competition and those teams emerging unscathed will fancy their chances of a decent cup run. First and foremost among them will be last year’s semi-finalists Newell’s Old Boys, who also won the Torneo Final under the guidance of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino before he took the reins at Barcelona. Though not quite the same force during the recent Torneo Inicial – largely due to the loss of Ignacio Scocco’s goals – they still challenged for the title right up until the final round of fixtures and have a largely similar squad. Experienced veterans Maxi Rodriguez, Gabriel Heinze and David Trezeguet bring bags of know how and have been joined by the signing of the January transfer window, Ever Banega on loan from Valencia. Expect them to continue their attractive possession-based football but one overriding concern is the lack of firepower up front, especially were Trezeguet to get injured.
Brazilian giants Gremio qualify as Brasileirão runners up and represent another formidable opponent. The two-time winners have parted ways with Dida, Alex Telles and Elano but the likes of Rhodolfo, Fabio Aurelio and Ze Roberto remain. Their success has been based on a solid defence, the second best in the league last year, but o Imortalwill need to address a lack of goals. Pirate look alike Hernan Barcos will be the target man to spearhead the attack and there will be also high hopes for young Argentinian playmaker Alan Ruiz, on loan from San Lorenzo, to fill Elano’s boots.
Atletico Nacional had a fantastic 2013, winning the Apertura, Clausura and the Copa Colombia, and many have tipped them for a good Libertadores campaign. Talented manager Juan Carlos Osorio, a former assistant at Manchester City, has a fantastic squad at his disposal and despite being handed such a tough draw, will be confident of progressing. Unlike some of their rivals, they have plenty of options up front, from Aston Villa legend Juan Pablo Angel to the likes of Fernando Uribe, Jefferson Duque and incoming Sebastian Trellez. Sherman Cardenas has borne the brunt of the Verdolagas creativity responsibility, especially since Macnelly Torres’ move to Al Shabab, but the arrival of Edwin Cardona will share that burden. As ever, there are also promising youngsters in the form of Wilder Guisao and U20 internationals Juan Pablo Nieto and Sebastian Perez, the latter once a target of Arsenal. If they are anything as entertaining as their 2012 incarnation, they will quickly become neutrals’ favourite.
Uruguayans Nacional made the Round of 16 last time around but, for all their history in the competition, will face a real battle to get out of the group. They prevailed against Oriente Petrolero in the first round but will have to significantly improve if they are to progress further. The mercurial Alvaro Recoba is still going and el Bolso will look to him to provide the ammunition for Ivan Alonso and Richard Porta. There are also a number of players with a point to prove, notably Sebastian Coates on loan from Liverpool and Santiago ‘Morro’ Garcia looking to kick start a once promising career. Meanwhile, the signing of Rinaldo Cruzado – impressive for Newell’s – is a canny addition and as ever there is a youthful flavour in the form of Renato Cesar, Juan Mascia, Maxi Calzada and Carlos de la Pena, all of whom could make an impression.
An original version of this piece appeared on the writers own blog.