Former kings clash as last 16 begins

The Copa Libertadores last 16 kicks off this week, with no fewer than nine former champions still in the mix. brings you its customary preview of the forthcoming action.

Game of the week
Thursday 28 April, 22.30 (GMT), Estadio Centenario (Montevideo, Uruguay)

After a run of four Libertadores campaigns without making it past the group stage, Uruguayan heavyweights Penarol have finally clinched a berth in the knockout phase for the first time since 2002. On that occasion, Los Carboneros made it through to the quarter-finals, where they exited at the hands of surprise finalists Sao Caetano, and they face Brazilian opposition this time around too in the shape of reigning champions Inter. The Porto Alegre side head into the tie with a good omen from their triumphant 2006 campaign, when they picked up a 2-1 last 16, first-leg win over Montevideo outfit Nacional on their way to lifting the trophy for the very first time. 

The second meeting of two former champions pits 1994 winners Velez Sarsfield against 2008 champions Liga de Quito. The pair are to play their first leg in Argentina, where LDU have picked up just one win and four draws from ten visits. Los Velezanos remain in first place in the domestic Clausura, despite crashing 3-2 at home to struggling Quilmes on Saturday, and are unbeaten in their last three Libertadores outings. 

The only other Argentinian side still in the hunt are Estudiantes, who welcome Cerro Porteno to their once fortress-like Estadio Unico, where they have now lost four of their last five games in all competitions. In a curious quirk of football fate, in the dugout for Paraguay’s El Ciclón is none other than Leonardo Astrada. It was the ex-River Plate and Argentina midfielder who coached Estudiantes to a berth in the 2009 Libertadores, a competition El Pincha went on to win under Alejandro Sabella. Deepening Cerro’s Argentinian connection is striker Roberto Nanni, who will be keen to add to his tournament-leading tally of seven goals.

Two-time winners Cruzeiro, who racked up the best record of any team in the group phase, travel to Colombia for the first leg of their tie with 2004 kings Once Caldas. The latter have been less than convincing at home in continental competition thus far, drawing two and losing one of three games on their own patch. The stats therefore weigh heavily in the favour of Brazil’s A Raposa, who are unbeaten and have yet to concede on their travels in this Libertadores. The Belo Horizonte outfit will also be buoyed by Saturday’s remarkable 8-1 first-leg triumph in the semi-finals of the Campeonato Mineiro.

Brazil’s Santos, meanwhile, who had the best record of all the second-placed teams from the group phase, face a tough test when they host Mexican heavyweights America. This is the third time O Peixe and Las Águilas have met in the Libertadores knockout rounds in recent years, though both previous ties came at the quarter-final stage. Santos it was who emerged victorious in 2007, with America gaining their revenge in 2008, though on neither occasion did the winners progress beyond the last four.

The fourth Brazilian contenders, Gremio, will have the statistics overwhelmingly on their side when they welcome Chile’s Universidad Catolica for their first leg. O Tricolor Gaúcho have won all eight of their home games in the last-16 stage of the Libertadores and gone through to the next round on each occasion. What's more, two-time champions Gremio reached the final and semi-finals in their last two Libertadores campaigns, in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Even their forthcoming clash with fierce Porto Alegre rivals Internacional in the final of the Campeonato Gaucho does not seem to have swayed them from their mission of lifting the Libertadores for a third time.

The last of the Brazilian quintet, Fluminense, were dealt two blows at the weekend in the shape of defeat to rivals Flamengo in the Taca Rio semi-finals and the confirmed injury absence of former Portugal schemer Deco. Flu will need to be on their guard when hosting Paraguay’s Libertad - one of only two unbeaten sides still in the tournament - who picked up seven of their 14-point group tally away from home. O Tricolor Carioca do have recent history in their corner, however, having beaten El Gumarelo 2-0 at home and 2-1 away in Group 8 in the Libertadores 2008.     

The midweek menu is completed by the meeting in Mexico of tournament debutants Jaguares and Colombia’s Junior. Though the latter will be buoyed by having topped Group 2 in this, their 11th Libertadores campaign, they have not reached the last eight since 2005. Nor will they face an easy ride in Chiapas, where Jaguares won all three of their group games, in stark contrast to three defeats from three on their travels.

Player to watch
Lucas Pratto (Universidad Catolica)
His team’s top scorer in the competition with four goals, La UC picked up points every time the physically imposing Argentinian forward found the net. Having come up through the ranks at Boca Juniors, Los Xeneizes sent him on a series of loan moves, including a brief spell in Norwegian football, before his latest switch to Universidad in 2010. Can the 22-year-old fire them into the last eight for the first time since 1997?

The stat
– The number of years that have passed since the team with the best group-stage record went on to win the Libertadores. With that in mind, can Cuca’s Cruzeiro break that jinx and match the feats of Ramon Diaz’s River Plate from 1996?

What they said
“We know how useful away goals are, but we’re going over there to play an intelligent game. We’re aiming for a positive result so there’s not as much pressure on us for the second leg at home,” Ivan Piris of Cerro Porteno ahead of a trip to Estudiantes.

Last 16, first legs
Gremio (BRA) - Universidad Catolica (CHI)
Velez Sarsfield (ARG) - Liga de Quito (ECU)

Jaguares (MEX) - Junior (COL)
Estudiantes (ARG) - Cerro Porteno (PAR)
Once Caldas (COL) - Cruzeiro (BRA)
Santos (BRA) - America (MEX)

Penarol (URU) - Internacional (BRA)
Fluminense (BRA) - Libertad (PAR)