Group phase taking shape

Following the nine games scheduled for this, the fifth week of group action in this year’s Copa Libertadores, all the teams in six of the competition’s eight groups will have played their first three section encounters. We will therefore be that much closer to seeing which of the 32 sides involved in the tournament are best-placed to secure a berth in the knockout stages.

Peru’s Universidad San Martin and Colombia’s Junior de Barranquilla are already in the running after winning their opening two games. Can the duo make it three from three in midweek? And what of struggling Deportivo Tachira, Guarani and Oriente Petrolero, who are all chasing positive results this week in a bid to revive their already faint hopes? Stick with for a look at the pick of the encounters on the Libertadores menu.

Game of the week
Union Espanola (CHI) - Velez Sarsfield (ARG)
Group 4, Thursday 10 March, Estadio Santa Laura (Santiago), 19.15 (local time)

Having led 3-1 at home against Chile's Universidad Catolica on 3 March, Velez Sarsfield ended up going down 4-3 in a result that denied them the chance to top Group 4 and dealt a heavy blow to morale. However, their spirits will have been lifted by the weekend’s 1-0 win over Boca Juniors, and coach Ricardo Gareca’s men travel to Santiago hopeful of inflicting more misery on Union Espanola. The latter need a response after defeats by Venezuela’s Caracas FC and Colo Colo in Libertadores and domestic action respectively. In the section’s other encounter, also taking place in Santiago, group leaders Universidad Catolica host Caracas.

In the week’s opening game, Group 1 leaders Universidad San Martin travel to the Paraguayan capital Asuncion to take on second-placed Libertad. Both sides are unbeaten thus far, with the Peruvian visitors one of only two teams still in with a chance of maintaining 100 per cent record after three games.

The second are Junior de Barranquilla, who visit Group 2 rivals Oriente Petrolero. Without a point from their opening two games, the Bolivian outfit would be cast even further adrift with defeat at home on Tuesday.

Over in Group 5, leaders Cerro Porteno of Paraguay and their clutch of Argentinian stars could open up a four-point gap from nearest pursuers Colo Colo with a home win over Venezuela’s Deportivo Tachira. The visitors, for their part, have just one point in the bag from two games so far.

In this week’s only game in Group 6, there is plenty at stake in the meeting between Emelec and Jaguares de Chiapas, second and third on four and three points respectively. A win for the Bolivian side would take them three points clear of Brazil’s Internacional, with the title holders not in action. Victory for their Mexican opponents, who welcome back key men Jackson Martinez and Ismael Fuentes, would also put them top of the section.

Champions in 2009, Argentina’s Estudiantes La Plata will be without the influential duo of Juan Sebastian Veron and Gaston Fernandez through injury when they tackle Group 7's bottom side Guarani. A win for El Pincha would take them within a point of section leaders Cruzeiro and leave their Paraguayan opponents virtually out of the running.

Finally, we turn to a very neatly balanced Group 8, where all four teams are level on three points apiece after two rounds of games. Will the deadlock have been broken after Penarol host Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito and Independiente cross swords with Godoy Cruz?

Player to watch
Jackson Martinez (Jaguares de Chiapas)
The 24-year-old Colombian striker has been hailed as something of a talisman by followers of the Mexican club, as Jaguares rarely lose when he finds the net. On a run of five straight defeats, during which they have scored just three goals, his return from injury could barely have come at a better time.

The stat
— Throwing up the most excitement to date in this year’s Libertadores is Group 4, where Universidad Catolica, Velez Sarsfield, Union Espanola and Caracas FC have scored a combined total of 16 goals after just two rounds of games. Particularly entertaining are La Católica, who have struck six and conceded five, but can they continue in a similarly thrilling vein at home to Caracas?

What they said
“In my view, Penarol’s win (away to Argentina’s Godoy Cruz) was no surprise. We knew beforehand that this would be a very difficult and well-matched group. I still think that whichever team wins their three home games will go through, but that’s no easy task.” Edgardo Bauza, coach of 2008 champions Liga de Quito, whose side travel to Montevideo to take on Penarol in Group 8.