Former kings set as group action begins
© AFP

The 53rd edition of the Copa Libertadores takes centre stage in Latin America this week, with the start of the eagerly awaited group phase. Thirty-two sides, divided into eight pools of four, will be battling it out for continental glory and the chance to represent the region at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012. With five former champions – Internacional, Nacional of Uruguay, Olimpia, Vasco da Gama and Velez Sarsfield – in action, FIFA.com takes a look ahead.

Game of the week
Vasco da Gama (BRA) - Nacional (URU)
Group 5 - Wednesday 8 February, 22:00 (local time) - Estadio Sao Januario (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

“On the way to Libertadores title number two” is how Vasco have been publicising ticket sales to their fans, who will be getting their first taste of the competition since 2001. O Gigante da Colina welcome Montevideo giants Nacional in what will be the only direct duel between former champions this week. Vasco won their sole Libertadores crown in 1998 while Juninho Pernambucano was enjoying his first spell at the club, and with the dead-ball specialist back playing for the Rio outfit once again, the fans have high hopes of another glorious campaign this time around.  

After a memorable 2011 that included victory in the Copa do Brasil, runners-up spot in the Brasileirao and a run to the semis of the Copa Sudamericana, Cristovao Borges' side will be keen to maintain their unbeaten start to 2012 against Marcelo Gallardo’s men. Gallardo, for his part, has firsthand experience of winning at the Sao Januario, having prevailed in a Supercopa group game there in 1997 while playing for River Plate. He also picked up a Libertadores winner’s medal with Los Millonarios in 1996 and will be hoping former Inter Milan forward Alvaro Recoba can inspire his Nacional side to a similar feat this year.

Elsewhere
Among the nine other fixtures this week is a home tie for two-time champions Internacional, who will fancy their chances against Juan Aurich of Peru in Group 1 despite having had to negotiate the qualifying round. O Colorado will not be the only former champions in action either: Velez Sarsfield, bolstered by the arrival of Federico Insua and Mauro Obolo, are away to Uruguay’s ever-difficult Defensor Sporting in Group 7. Paraguayan giants Olimpia, meanwhile, winners of this tournament in 1979, 1990 and 2002, also face a tricky away assignment, in their case against Ecuador’s Emelec in Group 2.

Player to watch
Andres D’Alessandro (Internacional)
The gifted Argentinian midfielder, voted South American player of the Year in 2010, scored in the aggregate victory over Once Caldas in the qualifying round and has his sights set on a repeat of Inter’s Libertadores triumph of two years ago. Now, having reportedly turned down a lucrative offer to play in China PR, the No10 will be hoping to continue in the rich vein of form that has him vying for a recall to his national team.

Did you know?
Eight of the 20 teams that will be in action this week missed out on the 2011 edition: Arsenal, Defensor Sporting, Chivas, Vasco, Nacional of Paraguay, Juan Aurich, Olimpia and Cruz Azul.

What they said
Jorge Ormeno, Universidad Catolica midfielder: “We’re still smarting about our quarter-final exit in last year’s Libertadores. We have the team, which we’ve strengthened very well, and that’s why our goal is to match that feat this year, then go even further.”

This week's fixtures
Tuesday
Fluminense (BRA) - Arsenal (ARG)
Defensor Sporting (URU) - Velez Sarsfield (ARG)
Chivas (MEX) - Deportivo Quito (ECU)

Wednesday
Vasco da Gama (BRA) - Nacional (URU)
Libertad (PAR) - Alianza Lima (PER)
Nacional (PAR) - Cruz Azul (MEX)

Thursday
Internacional (BRA) - Juan Aurich (PER)
Emelec (ECU) - Olimpia (PAR)
Universidad Catolica (CHI) - Bolivar (BOL)
Union Espanola (CHI) - Junior (COL)