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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.
Despite having a miserable campaign last year, Flamengo qualify thanks to their Copa do Brasil triumph. A tricky group, not least for some long journeys and games at altitude, the Rubronegrohave made some smart additions and look in decent shape. Ecuadorian centre back Frickson Erazo will slot into the defence, while Elano and Lucas Mugni – rescued from the shambles at Colon – will add some class and guile to the midfield and be given the freedom to roam thanks to the protective shield of Caceres, Luiz Antonio and Muralha. Up front top scorer Hernane is joined by Alecsandro, a veritable Libertadores good luck charm having won the tournament with Atletico Mineiro and Vasco, while Negueba will provide an injection of pace. Adryan has gone to Cagliari so Mattheus, son of Bebeto, will have the wonderkid tag all to himself. If they can keep their home form solid, they should progress.
Ecuadorian Serie A Champions Emelec will set up a rematch of the dramatic 2012 group with Flamengo in which a last gasp winner against Olimpia knocked the Brazilians out of the tournament. Although they lost Enner Valencia, voted best Ecuadorian player of 2013, to Pachuca they still have an interesting young side that could do well. Fernando Gaibor, Eddy Corozo and Marcos Caicedo are all exciting talents, while it will be intriguing to see Miller Bolanos after his return from the MLS. Their strike force though will comprise of Argentinian duo Marcos Mondiani and Denis Stracqualursi, once of brief Everton fame, to fire them into the next round.
One of two Mexican teams to feature in the Libertadores this year, Leon won the Liga MX Apertura and will provide a tough test for any team making the journey to Guanajato. Captained by the legendary Rafa Marquez, they also have Mauro Boselli who has rediscovered his form after a dreadful spell for Wigan. In midfield Carlos Pena, rated by Mexican expert Tom Marshall as “one of the most exciting players in the Liga MX”, will be another vital member of the squad and in goalkeeper William Yarbrough they also boast perhaps the best name in the competition.
2013 Bolivian Clausura champions Bolivar will be tricky opponents as they look to emulate their good performance in 2012 when they reached the knock out stages only to go out to a Neymar-inspired Santos. Taking advantage of their3 637m high home fixtures will, as ever, be key but their squad has enough quality to challenge on their travels too. Forwards Juan Carlos Arce and William Ferreira will aim to translate their devastating domestic form, while their trio of Spaniards all bring invaluable experience. Furthermore, there are some up-and-coming players in midfielders Rudy Cardozo and Jaime Arrascaita as well as goalkeeper Romel Quinonez, all of whom have represented the national team. Not many teams will relish their Estadio Hernando Siles and the Bolivians could cause an upset or two.
Since finishing as runners up in 2011, Uruguayan Primera Division champions Peñarol have not made it out of the group stage in the last two attempts but will back themselves to avoid a third successive early exit. The five-time winners have an experienced squad with veterans such as Marcelo Zalayeta, Fabio Estoyanoff and Dario Rodriguez, while Luis Aguiar, Sebastian Pirez and new signing Paolo Hurtado will be important players in the Manyas midifield. Up front, Carlos Nunez is a talented forward but needs to rediscover his form quickly and 20-year-old Jonathan Rodriguez is arguably their most exciting attacking prospect. Unlikely to go too far in the tournament, they will harbour legitimate expectations of making the round of 16 though.
Unfashionable Arsenal de Sarandi make their third consecutive Libertadores appearance thanks to their Copa Argentina win. Solid and hard to beat, Gustavo Alfaro’s charges have overachieved in recent years but have lost some key players in the last 12 months. They have hung onto the likes of Campestrini and full backs Perez and Nervo though and have made some smart additions during the transfer window. Franco Zuculini is the biggest of the names while Federico Freire, Matias Sanchez and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will all strengthen the squad. The injury to talented midfielder Nicolas Aguirre is a blow while lack of a true quality striker will curtail any ambitions of an extended run in the cup. Nevertheless, with a kinder draw than the last two years, they are certainly capable of progressing from the group.
Santos Laguna look the most impressive of the two Mexican sides and will ensure it is a tight battle at the top of the group. Veteran goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez captains a los Guerreros side which boasts the deadly strike partnership of Mexican international Oribe Peralta and Colombian Darwin Quintero. Should the two continue their good form, it could prove to give Santos that extra edge. Elsewhere, combative midfielder Ribair Rodriguez joins from Boca and former Celtic player Marc Crosas is also the Laguneros’ books, while Nestor Araujo and Alonso Escoboza are good young talents on the peripheries of the national team.
Finally,Venezuelan minnows Deportivo Anzoategui qualified for their first ever Libertadores appearance by finishing 2nd in the league but will go no further than the group stage. Panamanian duo Rolando Escobar and Edwin Aguilar will be the reference points of the Aurirojos and keep an eye out for 18-year-old striker Jaime Moreno who has broken through and scored six times this season.
An original version of this piece appeared on the writers own blog.