Former kings set for group campaigns

The group phase of the Copa Libertadores 2011 begins in earnest this week with a bumper card of 14 games. Figuring large among the 28 teams in action are ten former winners of the competition, including defending champions Internacional. sets the scene.

Game of the week
Cruzeiro-Estudiantes (Group 7)
Wednesday 16 February, Estadio Arena do Jacare (Sete Lagoas), 22.00 (local time)

The week’s only meeting between former champions, this match is also a repeat of the 2009 final, which El Pincha clinched with a 2-1 win in Belo Horizonte to claim their fourth title. A Raposa have mostly kept together the side that took second in the Brasilerao last year, and are aiming to go one better in the Libertadores. The Argentinians can also call on more or less the same personnel that lifted the Clausura 2010, but have a new coach at the helm, Eduardo Berizzo having taken over following Alejandro Sabella’s unexpected resignation.

Talking of champions, holders Internacional embark on their defence with a visit to Ecuador’s Emelec in Group 6 on Wednesday. O Colorado are sure to be in the running for the title once more, having added Argentinian internationals Mario Bolatti and Fernando Cavenaghi to a largely unchanged squad. The two other teams in the section are Jaguares and Bolivia’s Jorge Wilsterman, who meet in Mexico the same day.

Stepping out on Tuesday are 2010 Argentinian Clausura runners-up and Libertadores 1994 champions Velez Sarsfield. El Fortinero kick off their Group 4 campaign at home to Venezuela’s Caracas, who have always found points hard to come by in Argentina. Union Espanola and Universidad Catolica, the two Chilean rivals making up the section, face off in Santiago 24 hours later.

Situated on the other side of the Andes, the Argentinian city of Mendoza provides the setting for Liga de Quito’s opening game in Group 8. The Ecuadorians, who won the crown in 2008 under Edgardo Bauza – now in his second spell with the club – begin their latest tilt at the title against competition debutants Godoy Cruz, who will be on a high after thumping Boca Juniors at the Bombonera last weekend.

There are two ex-champions in Group 5, both of them with points to prove. Brazil’s Santos have gone 48 years without claiming the most coveted prize in Latin American football, a drought they are hoping teenage tyro Neymar can help them bring to an end. The Brazilians’ quest begins with Tuesday’s trip to Venezuela to face Deportivo Tachira, while fellow former champs Colo Colo will be hoping to atone for a dismal start to the domestic season when they visit Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno.

After failing to land the signature of former legend Ronaldinho, who overlooked them for Flamengo on his return to Brazil, Gremio will welcome the chance to get their latest Libertadores bid up and running. Coached by Renato Gaucho, a hero of their 1983 tournament win, O Tricolor’s Group 2 campaign begins with a home tie against Bolivia’s Oriente Petrolero on Thursday. In the other game in the pool Leon de Huanuco of Peru take on Junior of Colombia that same evening.

America’s Group 3 encounter with three-time Copa winners Nacional of Uruguay in Mexico City is one of the week’s outstanding games. Las Águilas have made a faltering start in the league and face a stern test against a side with genuine Copa pedigree.

Another Mexican side in action this week are San Luis, who entertain Paraguay’s Libertad in Group 1 on Tuesday, while section rivals Once Caldas, the surprise 2004 winners, welcome Peru’s Universidad San Martin to their Colombian stronghold.

Last but by no means least Deportes Tolima get the action under way in Group 7 when they host Guarani of Paraguay. The Colombians will not be lacking in confidence having knocked out the mighty Corinthians, including Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos et al, in the first round.

Player to watch
Neymar (Santos)
A star of the recently concluded South American U-20 Championship in Peru, where he confirmed his class by running out top scorer, the Santos sensation will now set about the task of returning O Peixe to the lofty position they occupied in their 1960s heyday. Should he maintain the high standards he has set in his brief but prolific career, the 19-year-old forward could make Santos a force to be reckoned with in the Libertadores once more.

The stat
The number of points that Nacional of Uruguay have won in Libertadores history (on the basis of three points being awarded for every win), more than any other club can muster in the competition.   In terms of the total number of victories, El Bolso lie third on the all-time list with 140 wins, one behind their Montevideo foes Penarol and four adrift of River Plate.

What they said
“There’s no such thing as an easy game in the Libertadores any more. We need to be ready for anything because the matches that look straightforward could be the ones with a surprise in store. We’ve never taken anything for granted, though, and we’re not going to start now,” Internacional midfielder Pablo Guinazu.