Copa Libertadores 2014 Preview Pt. I

AS FEATURED BY OUTSIDE OF THE BOOT

The 55th edition of the Copa Libertadores – the South American equivalent of the Champions League – kicks 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 & Mala Leche brings you a comprehensive group by group, two part preview to this year’s competition.

Mauro Zarate

Group 1: Velez (Arg), Universitario (Per), The Strongest (Bol), Atletico PR (Bra)

Argentinian ‘Super Champions’ Velez have been in a regular fixture in the knock-out stages of the last four editions and will be confident of progressing from the once group 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 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, he of former Inter Milan glory, 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.

Botafogo x Bahia

Group 2
: San Lorenzo (Arg), Union Espa
ñola (Chi), Botafogo (Bra), Independiente del Valle (Ecu)

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, Hector Villalba and Fernando Elizari.  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.  Having won 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, 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.  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.

P Hernandez O Higgins

Group 3: Cerro Porteño (Par), O’Higgins (Chi), Deportivo Cali (Col), Lanús (Arg)

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 atypical 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 Lanús 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 of 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.

Ronaldinho 2

Group 4
: Atletico Mineiro (Bra), Santa Fe (Col), Nacional Asuncion (Par), Zamora (Ven)

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.

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