Too close to call in race for quarters

Velez Sarsfield and Fluminense are the only sides defending more than one-goal leads in this week’s second legs in the last 16, which promise to provide tension aplenty as the Copa Libertadores field is whittled down to eight. looks ahead to a decisive few days in Latin America’s premier club competition.

Game of the week
Universidad Catolica-Gremio
Wednesday 4 May, 21.50 (local time), Estadio San Carlos de Apoquindo (Santiago, Chile)

Following their surprising but merited 2-1 win in Porto Alegre last week, Universidad Catolica can afford the luxury of a 1-0 defeat in front of their home fans. Libertadores runners-up in 1993 and the current Chilean league leaders, Catolica are enjoying their best run in the competition in years, having reached the knockout phase for the first time since 2002, when they fell in the last 16 to Brazil's Sao Caetano.

By contrast, Gremio are going through a sticky patch and were beaten by arch-rivals Internacional in the final of the second stage of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship at the weekend - a defeat that means the Porto Alegre rivals will have to face off twice more to decide the overall championship. There could be a further two Gre-Nais derbies in the weeks to come: should Gremio engineer a comeback in Chile and Inter see off Penarol in their tie, the Porto Alegre duo will meet in the quarter-finals.

America and Santos kick off the week’s action at the Estadio Corregidora in Queretaro tonight, with the Mexicans buoyed by their qualification for the domestic play-offs and looking to overturn a 1-0 loss in the first leg. Their task should be aided by the fact that Muricy Ramalho’s side will be without experienced midfielder Elano, who is injured.

Jaguares, the other Mexican side still in the competition, have much to do when they visit Junior on Thursday. The Colombians are in pole position after snatching a 1-1 draw in Chiapas, while their opponents have had a miserable season in the league, finishing bottom of the regular-season standings.

Internacional have the edge in their return fixture against Penarol in Porto Alegre after picking up a 1-1 draw in Montevideo last week. Growing in stature under coach Falcao, O Colorado are also tapping the rich potential of forward Leandro Damiao, who has scored twice in his last two outings.

Fellow Brazilians Cruzeiro are also in a relatively comfortable position in their tie against Once Caldas, having won 2-1 on Colombian soil last week. A Raposa boasted the best record of the 16 qualifiers for the knockout phase and have just served further notice of their fine form in the semi-finals of the Minas Gerais state championship, completing a 13-2 aggregate win over America.

Another well-placed Brazilian side are Fluminense, who travel to Asuncion to defend the 3-1 lead they built up in the first leg of their tie against Libertad.

After drawing a blank in La Plata, Cerro Porteno and Estudiantes meet in Paraguay on Thursday. El Ciclón are full of confidence after their 17-year-old Argentinian Juan Manuel Iturbe helped fire them to a derby win over Olimpia at the weekend, while El Pincha are licking their wounds after a crushing 4-0 reverse at the hands of Clausura leaders Velez Sarsfield.

And it is Velez who bring the week’s action to a close when they travel to Ecuador to defend their 3-0 lead over Liga de Quito, whose already-slim hopes now look even more remote with the news that striker Santiago Silva has been sidelined for two weeks following a thigh injury.

Player to watch
Arouca (Santos)
O Peixe have regained some of their consistency in midfield since Arouca’s return from a thigh injury in April. With his tireless running into space and ability to lend a helping hand up front, he is once more displaying the kind of football that put him in contention for a place in the Brazil team, no easy feat given the number of quality midfielders A Seleção have at their disposal.

The stat
48 -
By the time Estudiantes take to the field against Cerro Porteno in Asuncion they will have gone one month and 18 days since their last Copa Libertadores win, a 5-1 defeat of Gaurani, also of Paraguay, on 17 March. The Argentinians have lost one and drawn two of their three games in the competition since then.

What they said
“The team’s growing all the time. No matter which way you look at it the players are making a tremendous sacrifice and I’m very grateful for all the effort they’re putting in, both in the Copa and the Clausura. We’ve got a good chance in both and I hope we can keep it up,” Ricardo Gareca, Velez Sarsfield coach.

Last 16, second legs
America (MEX) - Santos (BRA)

Internacional (BRA) - Penarol (URU) 
Cruzeiro (BRA) - Once Caldas (COL)
Libertad (PAR) - Fluminense (BRA) 
Universidad Catolica (CHI) - Gremio (BRA)

Cerro Porteno (PAR) - Estudiantes (ARG) 
Junior (COL) - Jaguares (MEX)
Liga de Quito (ECU) - Velez Sarsfield (ARG)