Big guns feeling the heat

The week’s eight Copa Libertadores 2011 games are all potentially decisive. While big guns such as Fluminense, Velez Sarsfield, Independiente and Once Caldas are all under pressure to perform, the less fancied trio of Caracas, San Martin and Godoy Cruz are eyeing places in the last 16. sets the scene for the latest round of action in Latin America’s most prestigious club competition.

Game of the week
Estadio Engenhao (Rio de Janeiro), Wednesday 23 March, 21.50 (local time)

Barely three months after winning the Brazilian title, Fluminense are in crisis. Bottom of Group 3 with only two points and without a coach following Muricy Ramalho’s departure two weeks ago, Flu are in serious danger of repeating their failed campaigns of 1971 and 1985 and going out in the first round. Beaten 1-0 in Mexico City three weeks ago, the Carioca giants can at least call on the returning Fred and Emerson as they look to stay in contention.  

Second in the section, America have doubts of their own after suffering back-to-back league defeats against Cruz Azul and Monterrey. On the positive side, Carlos Reinoso’s side have the incentive of overtaking Argentinos Juniors at the top of the group should they win in Rio, an outcome that would leave Fluminense needing a near-miracle to advance.

All eyes will be on Group 1 on Tuesday, where the race to reach the next round will be settled if 2004 champions Once Caldas fail to win at the already-qualified Libertad and second-placed Universidad San Martin overcome San Luis in Mexico. The Peruvian team reached the knockout phase in 2009 and have understandably high hopes of repeating that feat.

Group 2 leaders Junior de Barranquilla, who are safely through to the next round, and Gremio both have the week off, leaving the stage clear for bottom club Oriente Petrolero and Leon de Huanuco, who meet in Bolivia on Thursday. Still without a point, Oriente are already out, while the Peruvian hopefuls need to win to keep Gremio in their sights.

Few sections have yielded as many surprises so far as Group 4. Just like Fluminense, favourites Velez Sarsfield find themselves at the bottom of the pile and will have little room for manoeuvre when they welcome Union Espanola to the Jose Amalfitani on Thursday. Sitting pretty on top of the table, a situation few could have foreseen at the start of the group phase, surprise packages Caracas can take a giant stride towards the next round by beating Universidad Catolica at home.

Finally, there is a tense all-Argentinian duel in store in an increasingly tight Group 8, where Godoy Cruz will be hoping to follow up their 3-1 win at Independiente two weeks ago when they entertain El Rojo in the return fixture in Mendoza. Should their guests, who have won the competition more times than any other club, exact revenge however, all four teams in the pool will be tied on six points with two games remaining.

Player to watch
Lucas Pratto (Universidad Catolica)
The 22-year-old Argentinian has made a habit of starring on the road, scoring Universidad’s equaliser in the 2-2 draw at Union Espanola and then hitting a decisive double in the epic 4-3 win at Velez Sarsfield. The Chilean side will be hoping for more of the same from Pratto when they make the long trip north to Caracas.

The stat
7 -
The number of players who have scored in Libertad’s four games to date, only two of whom have struck more than once. Sergio Aquino’s two goals have both come from the spot, while Victor Ayala has also got on the score-sheet twice for the Paraguayans.

What they said
“Beating Catolica would be a huge step for us in what is one of the best and most evenly balanced groups in the Libertadores. It’s important for us to win on Tuesday and if we can go on and qualify, then all the better. We’re stringing some good results together and we need to keep on working to stay out in front.” Caracas coach Ceferino Bencomo.

This week’s games
San Luis (MEX) - San Martin (PER)
Libertad (PAR) - Once Caldas (COL)
Caracas (VEN) - Universidad Catolica (CHI)

Fluminense (BRA) - America (MEX)
Godoy Cruz (ARG) - Independiente (ARG)

Oriente Petrolero (BOL) - Leon de Huanuco (PER)
Velez Sársfield (ARG) - Union Espanola (CHI)