Copa Libertadores 2013 preview pt. I

(Article featured on Lovely Left Foot)

With the final group places now allocated, the 54th edition of the Copa Libertadores proper gets underway this week.  The South American equivalent of the Champions League always promises to be packed with excitement & drama and this year is set to be no different, with a whole host of returning stars from Europe and emerging young prospects ready to showcase their talents.  Brazilian sides look likely to dominate again given their financial clout but there should be plenty of surprises along the way too.

So here is part one of a group by group guide of the Libertadores 2013, including some of the teams & players to keep an eye out for:

Riquelme's prodigal return

Group 1:  Barcelona (Ecu), Boca Juniors (Arg), Nacional (Uru), Toluca (Mex)

Last year’s runners up Boca Juniors will expect to qualify despite a fairly tricky draw for the Buenos Aires giants.  With Carlos Bianchi – the Larry David doppelganger who inspired them to 3 victories in the early noughties – now at the helm there will be some lofty aspirations for another title.  Although they were fairly uninspiring during the Inicial under craggy bore-merchant Falcioni, the (drawn out) return of Riquelme and the signing of Juan Manuel Martinez will add some much needed creativity plus exciting players Juan Sanchez Miño, Guillermo ‘Pol’ Fernandez Leandro Paredes will look to make an impact.

Across the other side of the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay’s Nacional are an interesting prospect with their blend of youth and experience.  Veterans Alvaro Recoba and Sebastian ‘Loco’ Abreu are bolstered by Juan Albin’s return from Spain, while el Bolso can count on Maxi Calzada (part of Uruguay’s Olympic squad) and other prospects such as Gonzalo Bueno, Renato Cesar, Adrian Luna & Juan Mascia.

Ecuadorian 2012 champions Barcelona de Guayaquil will push them hard with their combative midfield which includes playmaker Michael Arroyo, Matias Oyola and the promising midfield anchor Carlos Gruezo.  Mexican side Toluca will be no pushovers either and will hope that Edgar Benitez and Luis Tejada can fire them through in what should be a close battle for the second qualifying spot.

Libertad

Group 2: Libertad (Par), Palmeiras (Bra), Sporting Cristal (Per), Tigre (Arg)

Paraguayan side Libertad made the quarter final stage last year only to be edged out on penalties by Universidad de Chile and should harbour realistic expectations of making the knock out rounds again.  Ariel Nunez and Pablo Velazquez will look to repeat their good domestic goal-scoring form while they have also added bite to their midfield with signing of Argentinian pitbull Pablo Guiñazu.

Despite being relegated, Palmeiras feature thanks to their Copa do Brasil triumph.  As the Serie B doesn’t begin until May, they will be able to fully focus on the Libertadores and, although they weren’t able to lure Riquelme, Jorge Valdivia will cause problems but the loss of Barcos is an issue.  Given the fairly kind draw they stand a decent chance of making it through but will probably battle it out with Tigre who themselves are a similarly unpredictable entity. Having saved themselves from relegation against all odds last year, they went on a terrible run in the Torneo Inicial winning just one game while simultaneously reaching the Copa Sudamericana final, which ended in controversial fashion.  Having (also) missed out on Riquelme, Ruben Botta will be the main man to provide some inspiration for El Matador.

It would be easy to write off Sporting Cristal as whipping boys of the group but with experienced schemers such as Walter Vilchez, William Chiroque and Carlos Lobaton they shouldn’t be underestimated and in Irven Avila and ex-Velez Jonathan Ramirez they possess some firepower.  Though still unlikely to qualify, the potential Jekyll & Hyde nature of Palmeiras and Tigre might give them an outside chance.

Bernard e Ronaldinho

Group 3: Arsenal (Arg), Atletico Mineiro (Bra), The Strongest (Bol), Sao Paulo (Bra)

In one of the easier groups to predict, the Brazilian duo of Atletico Mineiro and Sao Paulo should dominate and cruise through to the next round. Copa Sudamericana winners Sao Paulo, who had to beat Bolivar to reach the group stage, possess a very strong squad capable of going a long way in the tournament.  The signing of commanding centre back Lucio will provide one of the big names of the competition and a midfield including Ganso, Jadson, Marcelo Cañete and Wellington is a mouth-watering prospect.  If that wasn’t enough they also boast former Brazil international Luis Fabiano to lead the line while Ademilson will hope to bounce back from a disappointing U20 Sudamericano.

Going head to head with their Brazilian counterparts are Serie A runners-up Atletico Mineiro with a certain Ronaldinho pulling the strings.  Another of the big name stars of the tournament, it will be fascinating to see the buck toothed wizard in the Libertadores as he optimistically targets a return to the Seleção in time for the World Cup in 2014.  Just as exciting will the opportunity to watch 20-year-old Bernard who was the breakout star of the Brasileirão last year.  Small and slight and the definition of a box of tricks, he and Ronaldinho will hope to inspire o Galo to a decent cup run.

Arsenal failed to get out of the group stage last year and look likely to suffer the same fate again this time around.  They did have a strong finish to the Torneo Inicial and possess good players in Lisandro Lopez and Carlos Carbonero but the might of the Brazilians will be too much.  The same can be said of the marvellously named The Strongest from Bolivia.  As is often the case, home form will be crucial as they will try to take advantage of the altitude to cause a few upsets.  Midfielder Alejandro Chumacero – featured in the IBWM 100 for 2013 – will be one to watch and Colombian forward Harold Reina will be a handful but it seems the Bolivians unlikely they will live up to their name.

gago velez

Group 4: Emelec (Ecu), Peñarol (Uru), Velez (Arg), Deportes Iquique (Chi)

Group 4 looks all set up to be a great contest in what should be a tight affair.  Argentinian Inicial champions will be favourites and have a good recent record having reached the quarter-finals and semi-finals in the last two tournaments.  A model of consistency, the side from Liniers has been boosted by the major transfer coup of bringing Fernando Gago to the club on a 6 month loan from Valencia, while promising striker Facundo Ferreyra will look to continue his form in front of goal alongside Lucas Pratto.  Gareca boasts a well-balanced squad with strength and depth who could go far.

Velez are joined by Uruguay’s Peñarol to set up a replay of the 2011 Libertadores semi-final.  The Montevideans had an awful campaign last year and will want to banish memories of that disappointment. Experienced forwards Zalayeta, Olivera and Estoyanoff will lead the line while the squad also includes some young talents from the U20 squad such as midfielder Sebastian Cristoforo.  It will also be interesting to see how Sebastian Gallegos does after an unsuccessful spell in Europe.

Ecuadorian side Emelec qualified for the final stages last year but went out to eventual champions Corinthians in the round of 16.  Packed full of young talent such as Marcos Caicedo, Fernando Gaibor, Eddy Corozo and Marlon de Jesus they have also added Paraguayan striker Pablo Zeballos to their ranks for an added cutting edge.

Finally, Chilean side Deportes Iquique claimed the last place with a win over Mexico’s Leon.  Key players for los Dragones Celestes will be enganche Rodrigo Diaz, Manuel Villalobos and Edson Puch, who Chilean football expert Joel Sked describes as “diminutive, with wonderful balance and superb, glue-to-the-boot control of the ball”. Señor Sked also highlighted the importance of the change of management after the club parted ways with highly regarded Fernando Vergara and appointed young Cristian Diaz.  Perhaps much of their chances will rest on how the unproven Diaz takes to this difficult baptism.

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