The 2012 edition of the Copa Libertadores looks to have all the ingredients required to be one of the most keenly contested of recent years, with no fewer than four former champions in the preliminary round alone. From Tuesday onwards, Penarol, Flamengo, Internacional and Once Caldas will all be feeling the pressure as they kick off their bids to reach the group phase of the prestigious competition, while 2007 Copa Sudamericana victors Arsenal Sarandi are also in the mix.
Game of the week
Wednesday 25 January, 22.00 (local time), Estadio do Beira-Rio (Porto Alegre, Brazil)
Of the six knockout ties on the agenda, the meeting of Brazil’s Internacional and Once Caldas of Colombia is arguably the highest profile, pitting as it does the 2006 and 2010 champions (Internacional) versus the victors from 2004. Inter can still call upon the services of many key men from that 2010 triumph and have made few changes during the recent close season – the signing of gifted ex-Sao Paulo attacker Dagoberto being a notable exception.
What's more, the likes of Leandro Damiao and Oscar were just testing the first-team waters two years ago and have since gone on to become vital cogs in the Colorado machine currently coached by Dorival Junior. Also providing the team with a timely boost is the presence of inspirational Argentinian schemer Andres D’Alessandro, who remains available despite being in negotiations for a move to Chinese football.
Well aware of the firepower at Inter’s disposal, Once Caldas boss Pompilio Paez was quick to put the favourites’ tag on the Brazilian outfit after the draw. However, his own charges should also be feeling the benefits of stability, having largely kept the squad together that finished runners-up in the Colombia Clausura and which has shown encouraging pre-season form. “Over the past two years we’ve put in well-balanced performances in the Libertadores,” said Paez. “We’re a good team on our travels and we need to play with intelligence, defend well, create chances and put them away.”
Only founded back in 2007, thus making them the youngest club in this year’s Libertadores, the first test for Peruvian side Sport Huancayo are none other than Argentinian outfit Arsenal Sarandi, who in 2007 were sweeping all before them in the Copa Sudamericana. Set to take part in the Libertadores for the second time, will Arsenal’s continental nous see them safely through?
The meeting between Bolivia’s Real Potosi and Brazilian giants Flamengo enjoys a greater degree of Libertadores tradition, given the two teams went toe-to-toe in the competition in 2007. Of the current Fla squad, only right-back Leo Moura and midfielder Renato know how it feels to tackle Real Potosi at over 4,000 metres above sea level. The duo both appeared in that game nearly five years ago, when the home side went 2-0 up only to be pegged back to 2-2. Os Rubro-negros, the 1981 champions, will be hoping the talent of Ronaldinho Gaucho and the benefits of an extended acclimatisation period can get them another positive result this time around.
Mexican club Tigres, for their part, are travelling to Chile just before their first leg against Union Espanola and also intend to rest several key men – thus granting an opportunity to some of their more promising youngsters. Clinical Chilean striker Hector Mancilla is available, but will only be used in the return leg. Libertadores runners-up in 1975, Union have strengthened their squad ahead of this campaign, notably by bringing in ex-River Plate creator Mauro Diaz. Can Union repeat last year’s feats, when they ousted Bolivia’s Bolivar to reach the group phase?
Runners-up in 2011, Uruguay’s Penarol kick off against Venezuela’s Caracas, and are boosted by the signings of midfielder Luis Aguiar and right-winger Fabian Estoyanoff, brought back to their homeland from Sporting Lisbon and Greece’s Panionios respectively. Caracas, for their part, warmed up with two friendlies in Argentina – a draw with Racing and a defeat to Ferrocarril – and also lost their opening match of the Venezuelan Clausura against Trujilianos.
Finally, Paraguay’s Libertad begin their tenth consecutive Libertadores campaign against Ecuador’s El Nacional. This will be the fifth meeting between the sides, who also clashed in the 2006 and 2007 editions, with Libertad winning both home games and picking up two draws away.
Player to watch
Rodrigo Mora (Penarol)
Plenty of patience was required from Penarol as they wrangled with Benfica over the loan signing of Rodrigo Mora, yet the forward has since wasted very little time in winning over Los Aurinegros’ faithful. After touching down in Montevideo last Wednesday, Mora appeared for Penarol in Thursday’s Copa Comunicaciones (a pre-season friendly tournament featuring two Paraguayan and two Uruguayan teams) game with Nacional. He then scored his first goal in Saturday’s draw with Libertad, which appears to have convinced coach Gregorio Perez to start the attacker against Caracas.
7 – The number of players from Tigres’ U-20 squad drafted into the first team to take on Union Espanola. Among them is 17-year-old attacking midfielder Jorge Espericueta, who caught the eye in Mexico’s triumph on home soil at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011.
What they said
“[On the way here] I had a bit of a flashback about what happened last time, the difficulties we faced, but back then we only arrived just before the game and we struggled more than we should have. The conditions are the same but we’re in better physical condition than we were in 2007. We’re coming back here to try and put the tough time we had in 2007 behind us,” Flamengo midfielder Renato goes all nostalgic ahead of Wednesday’s game at over 4,000m in Potosi, Bolivia.