Copa Libertadores 2012 Preview: Part 1

(Article first published on In Our Humble Opinion 03/02/12)

With the Copa Libertadores just around the corner and all places in the group stage now decided, In Our Humble Opinion previews the 53rd edition of South America’s version of the Champions League.

As ever it promises to be an exciting tournament with the likes of 2011 champions Santos, Copa Sudamericana champions Univerisdad de Chile and a resurgent Boca Juniors among those featuring and hoping to win the biggest competition on the continent.
So here is a group by group lowdown…

Group 1 (Santos, Juan Aurich, The Strongest, Internacional)
Last year’s champions Santos will again be strong favourites for the title and should qualify from this fairly unchallenging group without too many problems.  Despite a mid-table finish in the league they can still call upon the wonderfully gifted strike sensation Neymar and talented playmaker Ganso.  They have a strong experienced squad with the likes of Edu Dracena, Elano (albeit currently unsettled) and last season’s top scorer Borges while cavaliering fullback Danilo has been replaced with Uruguayan Jorge Fucile on loan from Porto. 

The Brazilians are joined by Peruvian side Juan Aurich, who were crowned domestic champions for the first time in their history.  They will look towards prolific Panamanian Luis Tejada up front to get the goals that might cause an upset.  Bolivian side The Strongest also form part of group 1 but don’t have a great record in the tournament.  They will be hoping that they can take advantage of the altitude at home but they will struggle to make it out of the group stages. 

Finally, they will be joined by Internacional who overcame 2004 champions Once Caldas to take the last spot in the group.  The Brazilians won their first leg 1-0 and drew 2-2 in Colombia to edge through 3-2 on aggregate.  This sets up a tantalizing all-Brazilian show-down with Santos and gives the opportunity for a further look at the exciting Leandro Damião.  They also boast an impressive squad with the likes of Argentine midfield contingent Bolatti, Guiñazú, D’Alessando and now new signing Jesús Dátolo.  They may have lost Ilsinho, who has returned to Shakhtar, and promising centre back Juan, now at Inter Milan, but they can call upon Dagoberto and talented young midfielder Oscar, who in my opinion was the best player at last year’s U20 World Cup.  And if they get really desperate there is always Premier league flop Jô!  Both Brazilian sides will expect to qualify to the knock out stages.

Group 2 (Olimpia, Emelec, Lanús, Flamengo)
Paraguayan champions Olimpia will be confident of getting through the group and have a decent squad with the likes of Paraguayan international Cáceres and decent strike force of Caballero & top scorer Zeballos.  Keeping hold of the later after plenty of interest from Europe in particular, as well as coach Pelusso, will boost their chances.  Ecuadorian runner ups Emelec will probably struggle to get through but they have added Argentine Luciano Figueroa and have some exciting youngsters in Marlon de Jesús, Fernando Gaibor, and Marcos Caicedo. 

Lanús have a strong, experienced squad and I back them to qualify.  Their midfield has strength in depth with Valeri, Fritzler and Ledesma plus the experience of Mauro Camoranesi and Marco Reguiero along with the youthful enthusiasm of Guido Pizarro and Mauricio Pereyra.  They have also brought in Salcedo from Argentinos Jnrs to bolster their forward line and will hope Romero can start producing on a more regular basis too. 

Brazilian giants Flamengo had to endure a lung-busting trip to Real Potosi, situated at more than 4,000 metres above sea level, to reach the group stage.  They lost the first game 2-1 but were too strong at home, in the end comfortably winning 2-0 to avoid a big upset and going through 3-2 on aggregate.  The tournament will be better for having the likes of Ronaldinho and new acquisition Vagner Love on show.  They also have proven goalscorer in ex-Fenerbahce forward Deivid and have brought in Marcos González from Universidad de Chile.  They recently changed manager with Joel Santana coming in for his fifth spell at the club in the place of under-fire predecessor Vanderlei Luxemburgo.   Furthermore, they some have decent youngsters to watch out for in the pacey Negueba, ever-improving midfielder Luiz Antônio and we could even see the odd appearance from U17 star and Man Utd target Adryan.  A tough group to predict with Olimpia, Lanús and Flamengo all harbouring realistic chances of going through to the next round.

Group 3 (Bolívar, Junior, Universidad Católica, Unión Española)
Another tricky group to call. Bolivian Adecuación champs Bolívar have appeared regularly but have only once got to the semi-finals once back in 1986. Their Uruguayan forward William Ferreira has a phenomenal record in Bolivia (90 in 123!) and they have also brought in journeyman Juan Carlos Arce and Paraguayan Ever Cantero.  Argentine Damián Lizio is worth looking out for too.  However the chances for them to recreate the performance in ‘86 look slim. 

Colombian Finalización champions Junior de Barranquilla also form part of Group 3.  They will be without the goals of Carlos Bacca, who has moved to Belgium’s Club Brugge, but they do have Football Manager favourite Sherman Cardenas in their squad and legendary midfielder Giovanni Hernandez.  They have brought in promising defender Hector Quiñónez and Iván Vélez from Independiente. 

Universidad Católica will be fairly satisfied with the draw and the Chilean runners-up have a good squad.  I’ve long been a fan of their young stopper Cristopher Toselli ever since his performances at the 2007 U20 World Cup and Kevin Harbottle is an exciting and versatile forward too.  Ormeño and Silva in centre mid is a good pairing and despite losing Cereceda and Mirošević, they have managed to bring in Trecco from Cobreloa and left back Campos Toro on loan.  

Católica will be joined by fellow Chileans Unión Española.  Union Española, who finished third in the Chilean league, beat Mexican side Tigres to qualify for the group stages.  The Chileans won the first leg 1-0 and in the return leg came from two goals down, after an early brace from diminutive forward Alan Pulido, to draw 2-2 and squeeze through 3-2 on aggregate.  Had Tigres fielded full-strength sides they may well have qualified.  Union have strengthened their squad with Mauro Diaz coming in from River Plate to add some creativity in midfield alongside the nous of Uruguayan veteran Scotti.  New striker Emanuel Herrera scored plenty of goals for Concepcion last year and Union will hope he can replicate that form.  A difficult group to predict but Universidad Católica should at least make it through.

Group 4 (Boca Juniors, Zamora, Fluminense, Arsenal de Sarandí)
Group 4 throws up one of the most mouth-watering clashes in the group stages pitting together Argentine champions Boca against Brazil’s Fluminense.  Boca powered to the title in impressive but unspectacular form without much of a challenge.  Nevertheless, under Falcioni they are very solid at the back and well organized throughout the team.  The signing of El Tanque Santiago Silva, to be used exclusively in the Copa Libertadores due to the fact that he’s already played for two other teams this season, will give them guaranteed goals up front.  Other new signing Pablo Ledesma looked very impressive in pre-season and will improve their midfield.  Even with Riquelme trying to upset the apple cart, they will qualify and could go on a decent run.

Fluminense will also expect to qualify without much difficulty.  With the likes of experienced players such as Fred, Deco and Rafael Sóbis they have plenty of firepower.  They have strengthened their squad with Thiago Neves and young midfielder Manuel Lanzini, still on loan from River, is an exciting player.  Venezuelan side Zamora are making their first appearance and face a baptism of fire.  They will be massive underdogs and I doubt they will qualify.  Nevertheless look out for the marvellously named Layneker Zafra and César “Magico” González. 

Argentinian side Arsenal de Sarandí cruised through to the group stages after beating Peruvian side Sport Huancayo 4-1 on aggregate.  Due to the ridiculous qualifying system in Argentina, Arsenal claimed a Libertadores place after their performance in the Copa Sudamericana despite finishing 10th in the league.  On top of this mediocre domestic form they have also lost star striker Mauro Obolo.  They have though brought in Jorge Córdoba to replace their number 9 as well as tidy Colombian Carlos Carbonero and still have talented young defender Lisandro López and fellow centre back Guillermo Burdisso, younger brother of Roma’s Nicolas.  Having said this I strongly doubt they will qualify with Boca and Fluminense in the group.