Copa Libertadores 2015 Preview Pt I
ARTICLE FIRST FEATURED ON OUTSIDE OF THE BOOT
With the last of the group spots now finalised, the 56th edition of the Copa Libertadores – South America’s equivalent of the Champions League – properly gets underway this week and, as ever, it promises to be full of drama, excitement and shocks. The vast distances, not to mention the range of altitudes and climates, make it a highly challenging, unpredictable and captivating contest, while also offering the opportunity to catch a first glance at some of the continent’s emerging prospects.
Argentinian side San Lorenzo won their first ever title last year, breaking the run of Brazilian triumphs and capping a remarkable turnaround for a club on the brink of relegation just two years before.
With the last three victors being first time winners, could we see another maiden champion? Or will one of the established giants reclaim the continent’s top club prize? The following comprehensive two part group by group guide will take you through all the contenders.
Group 1: Atletico Mineiro (Bra), Santa Fe (Col), Colo Colo (Chi), Atlas (Mex)
Immediately standing out as one of the more interesting groups, Group 1 is likely to be competitive and hard-fought. Atletico Mineiro, champions two years ago, recovered from a loss of form to lift the Copa do Brasil and will expect to progress. With Victor in goal and a solid spine running through the team, the onus will be on Jesus Datolo, Luan and Sherman Cardenas, on loan from Atletico Nacional, to provide the ammunition for new signing Lucas Pratto and hot prospect Carlos up front. The departure of the influential Diego Tardelli is a major blow but Atletico should be able to overcome it.
Galo will once again come face to face with familiar foes Santa Fe. Drawn in the same group last year, the two also met in the semi-finals in 2013 and the Colombians will be out for revenge. Playmaker Omar Perez is still the man who makes El Expreso Rojo tick and they have added Yamilson Rivera and Miguel Borja to bolster Luis Arias and Wilson Morelo in attack. Their defence may be young but has experience that belies its tender years and Santa Fe will hope to bounce back from last year’s early exit.
Chilean Clausura champions Colo Colo, back after a four year break, will be vying for a place in the knock out stages too. Los Albos can count on plenty of experience right the way through their squad with the likes of Villar, Maldonado, Valdes, Fierro and Beausejour , as well as the lethal pairing of Esteban Paredes and repatriated Humberto Suazo up front. There is a sprinkling of youth too with Luis Pavez, Claudio Baeza and goalscoring midfielder Juan Delgado all first team regulars. Whether their ageing side have enough in the tank for a long run in the cup is still very much in question but qualification from the group will certainly be an achievable aim.
Making up a difficult group to call are Mexican outfit Atlas de Guadalajara. Midfielder pair Aldo Ramirez and Rodrigo Millar will be important for Los Zorros and keep an eye out for the exciting Arturo ‘Ponchito’ Gonzalez.
Group 2: San Lorenzo (Arg), Sao Paulo (Bra), Danubio (Uru), Corinthians (Bra)
Group 2 will most likely be seen as the ‘Group of Death’ as it contains three of the biggest names in the competition. Reigning champions San Lorenzo will be hard pushed to repeat their feats from 12 months ago but will want to make a fist of retaining their crown. Midfield duo Juan Mercier and Nestor Ortigoza have a great understanding and Leandro Romagnoli remains a talismanic presence for el Ciclon. Strikers Martin Cauteruccio, Mauro Matos and Gonzalo Veron have goals in them but there will be some question marks over the defence and whether the ageing Mario Yepes can last the pace. With cup specialist Edgardo Bauza at the helm though they have a canny operator and boast a good recent record against Brazilian sides so don’t write Los Cuervos off just yet.
Sao Paulo are one of the favourites in the tournament and a glance at their squad shows just why. Kaka may have left but Ganso, Pato, Michel Bastos and Luis Fabiano remain to form the most star studded line up in the Libertadores. Throw in former Arsenal man Denilson, veteran goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni, Alan Kardec and Breno – having now served his jail time for arson – and there is plenty of strength in depth. The loan signing of Doria is a terrific piece of business and the arrival of tricky winger Ricardo Centurion will add some pace and unpredictability on the flank, while promising youngsters Ademilson, Boschilia and Auro could also see some game time. Realistically, Muricy Ramalho should be reaching the semi-finals as a minimum but will have to negotiate a tough group first.
Cross city rivals Corinthians qualified after a 5-1 aggregate victory over Once Caldas and their clashes against Sao Paulo will be some of the most highly anticipated in the early stages. The 2012 champions have Tite back in charge after a brief hiatus and, as pointed out in Euan Marshall’s excellent blog, will line up in a 4-1-4-1 that attempts to marry possession and counter-attacking football. Keeping hold of striker Paolo Guerrero will be imperative for the system to work and other key players will include impressive goalkeeper Cassio and creative midfielder Renato Augusto. Despite being hampered with financial problems after moving into their new stadium, the club have still managed to bring in some good signings such as Vagner Love, Emerson Sheik and Cristian, while young prodigy Malcom Silva is extremely highly rated and could provide some inspiration from the bench.
Uruguayan champions Danubio can count themselves unlucky after such a difficult draw and will struggle to make it out of the group. They haven’t been helped by the loss of Camilo Mayada to River but can count on the experience of Fabian Canobbio and the invention of Ignacio Gonzalez, while Matias Castro will be the main goal threat supported by the once promising Gonzalo Barreto and Bruno Fornaroli. There is a youthful feeling to the team with U20 internationals Guillermo Cotugno, Gaston Faber and Horacio Sequeira all regulars who will look to Defensor Sporting’s run to the semis last year for inspiration.
Group 3: Cruzeiro (Bra), Mineros (Ven), Universitario (Per), Huracan (Arg)
On the face of it, Cruzeiro seem to have been handed a very kind draw and the current Brasileirao champions should cruise through to the knock out stages without too much hassle. However, A Raposa might not be as strong as they have been in previous campaigns. Three of their prize jewels have left for pastures new; Everton Ribeiro joined Ah-Ahli in the UAE, while Ricardo Goulart traded Belo Horizonte for the Chinese Super League with Guangzhou Evergrande and impressive young midfielder Lucas Silva has been snapped up by Real Madrid.
But Cruzeiro have proved they can box clever in the transfer market and the signings of Eugenio Mena, Duvier Riascos, and talented Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian de Arrascaeta, so impressive last year for Defensor Sporting, look to be good additions. The big gamble though is the loan of Leandro Damiao who has failed to lived up to the early hype that surrounded him at Internacional. It will be a big ask for him to fill the shoes of Marcelo Moreno – now back at Gremio – and it could prove to be one of the more intriguing storylines of the competition. Along with Julio Baptista, Riascos and Cameroonian striker Joel, whose goals helped save Coritiba from the drop, there is still enough talent up front and it would be a huge upset if Marcelo Oliveira’s men failed to qualify.
Historic Buenos Aires side Huracan capped off a sensational 2014 by securing promotion to the Primera and winning the Copa Argentina, securing a return to the Libertadores for the first time in 41 years. Having brushed aside Alianza Lima 4-0, los Quemeros will give themselves a fighting chance of keeping the fairytale going a bit longer. With the departure of Gonzalo Martinez, the importance of Patricio Toranzo will grow and the muscular presence of the comically nicknamed Ramon ‘Wanchope’ Abila will be a handful for any defence. Youngsters Cristian Espinoza and Alejandro Romero Gamarra are also exciting prospects to watch out for.
Joining them are Bolivian Clausura champions Club Universitario and Venezuelan runners up Mineros de Guayana. The Sucre based Universitario can count on relatively high altitude of home games to give them a slight edge and the Argentinian contingent of Robledo, Filippetto, Silvestre and Palavinci are likely to form an important spine of the team alongside captain Mauricio Saucedo. Based by the banks of the Orinoco, Mineros too will see this as a golden opportunity to qualify and will look to a number of internationals with European experience such as imposing goalkeeper Rafael Romo, defender Gabriel Cichero, midfielders Rafael Acosta and Angelo Pena, and striker Richard Blanco. Who grabs that second spot in this eclectic group will be anyone’s guess!
Group 4: Emelec (Ecu), Internacional (Bra), Universidad de Chile (Chi), The Strongest (Bol)
Another of the more interesting and tougher groups to predict, Group 4 could throw up some surprises. Ecuadorian 2014 Serie A champions Emelec are Libertadores regulars and, despite a poor showing last year, usually grace the knock out stages but will have be on their A game right from the start. The star man for el Bombillo will be Miller Bolanos who was in sparkling goalscoring form last year, while Angel Mena also enjoyed a particularly good return from midfield last season too. Emanuel Herrera will be a threat up front and the Ecuadorians’ experienced defence has plenty of cup competition knowhow to see them through.
Vying for top spot in the group will be Internacional who qualified after finishing third in the Brasileirao. Winners in 2006 and 2010, they have arguably the best player in the competition in El Principe Charles Aranguiz as well as the likes of Andres D’Alessandro, Alex and Nilmar. The loan signing of Vitinho from CSKA could be profitable and the return of Anderson, who broke through at rivals Gremio, could be a fascinating sidestory that could just as easily be either a stroke of genius or a waste of money, as Tim Vickery discusses in this article.
Chilean Apertura champions Universidad de Chile may not be the force they were under Jorge Sampaoli a few years back but will certainly be in with a good shout of making the knock out stages after narrowly missing out last year. Stalwarts Jonny Herrera, Jose Rojas and Gustavo Lorenzetti remain and will be bolstered by the added experience of Waldo Ponce joining the ranks. Uruguayan duo Matias Corujo and Guzman Pereira will also be important and Gustavo Canales can always be relied upon to find the back of the net, along with fellow forwards Sebastian Ubilla and new signing Leandro Benegas.
Filling the last spot are Bolivians The Strongest who qualified for their fourth consecutive Libertadores campaign after a 3-1 aggregate victory over Morelia Monarcas. The importance of veteran playmaker Pablo Escobar cannot be stressed enough and it was his three strikes that put the Mexicans to the sword to book El Decano’s place in the group stage. As with all teams based at altitude, the Strongest will have to capitalise on their home ties to stand a chance of progressing further and, even if they are unable to make it through themselves, their capability for springing an upset may prove crucial in deciding the final outcome of this intriguing group.
ARTICLE FIRST FEATURED ON OUTSIDE OF THE BOOT