Survival of the fittest – a Libertadores preview
The group phase of South America’s juiciest footballing carrot, the Copa Libertadores, gets underway tonight at the Parque Central stadium in Montevideo, when home side Nacional take on Barcelona de Guayaquil from Ecuador.
The competition is often described as South America’s Champions League. But while in Europe the latter stages tend to be dominated by the same old faces, the Libertadores is often a more democratic affair, and is all the better for it. In the last decade or so, the title has been won by surprise packages such as Colombia’s Once Caldas and Ecuador’s LDU Quito.
The huge travelling distances involved play a part. As South American football writer Euan Marshall noted in a recent article, the longest journey in this year’s group phase will involve the games between Corinthians of São Paulo and Mexico’s Club Tijuana – a jaunt of some 6,000 miles. Extreme altitudes in a number of cities in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia also help level the playing field, making trips to these regions extremely arduous for big city glamour-pusses from Rio, São Paulo and Buenos Aires.
The Libertadores, which also boasts (if that’s the right word) a much greater diversity of pitch quality and stadium safety conditions than the homogenous Champions League, is therefore a more gruelling competition, with stamina, squad size and mental strength often counting for more than on-field finesse. This was demonstrated perfectly by last year’s winners Corinthians, a model of power, efficiency and on ne passé pas spirit.
Despite this, Brazil and Argentina, who between them have supplied the winners in 38 of the cup’s 53 years, remain the powerhouses. While Brazil’s recent economic growth and sheer weight of population has told in recent times (a Brazilian side has made the final in each of the last eight years, and the last three winners have all spoken Portuguese rather than Spanish), it is Argentina, with 22 titles, that has long been king of the Libertadores hill. This tradition of success has led to the Argentinian influence spreading beyond the country’s borders – one third of the coaches in this year’s tournament are from Argentina.
Of this year’s Brazilian crop, holders Corinthians may once again be the side to beat. The club showed against Chelsea in the Club World Cup that they had arguably improved on last year’s winning side, and the signing of Alexandre Pato was a huge move. Coach Tite has developed an effective system, and knows how best to manage his resources over the long haul of a Libertadores campaign. Corinthians seemed to get stronger as last year’s competition progressed.
Their group, however, is not the easiest. The Xoloitzcuintles of Tijuana promise to be difficult opponents at home, while Millonarios of Bogota, who beat both Palmeiras and Grêmio in last year`s Copa Sul Americana, also look dangerous.
In Group 8, reigning Brazilian champs Fluminense`s strength is a capable, settled side, despite a lack of big name signings in the off-season. Group rivals Grêmio took the opposite approach, with a mad trolley dash in recent weeks bringing in Eduardo Vargas from Napoli, Hernan Barcos from Palmeiras, and Arsenal’s André Santos, among others. Playing at the spanking new Arena do Grêmio, the gaúchos could be a decent outside bet to make the final.
Most Brazilian eyes, however, will this week be focused on the Group 3 clash between Atlético Mineiro and São Paulo. Nowhere is the Libertadores more eagerly awaited than in Belo Horizonte, where Atlético will return to the competition after a thirteen year absence, and the club’s cramped Independência ground, described by club president Alexandre Kalil as “the only true Libertadores stadium in Brazil”, promises a rowdy atmosphere. Atlético have added former idol Diego Tardelli to last year’s attractive team, though an over reliance on Ronaldinho and young midfielder Bernard remains a worry.
São Paulo, meanwhile, have one of the deepest squads in the competition, experience down the spine of the side in Rogério Ceni, Lúcio and Luís Fabiano, and the tactical nous of coach Ney Franco. Group rivals Arsenal de Sarandi of Argentina, and Bolivia’s The Strongest, who play their home games at 12,000 feet above sea level in La Paz, should not be overlooked.
Last and probably least of the Brazilian candidates are Palmeiras, for whom the Libertadores offers a whiff of glamour in a year that will otherwise be dominated by the slow trudge of a Serie B campaign. While the deal that took Barcos to Grêmio will likely be good for the club in the long run, for now it leaves Verdão bereft of their attacking focal point. Anything other than qualification from a tricky looking group, followed by a respectable exit in the knock-out stages, will count as a considerable achievement.
If there is to be a threat to the current Brazilian hegemony, it will most likely come from old foes Argentina, perhaps in the form of Vélez Sarsfield, whose loan signing of Fernando Gago from Valencia was a huge move both for the club and Argentinian football. Boca Juniors, so often the thorn in the side of Brazilian Libertadores hopes, but a weakened force in recent years, will bet on the experience of perpetually morose idol Juan Román Riquelme and veteran coach Carlos Bianchi, who has four Libertadores titles notched on his bedpost, to return the club to the glories of the past.Tagged in: football
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