Nick Dorrington


We are just weeks into the 2009 Copa Libertadores and the competition is already living up to its reputation for entertainment. There has been an average of 2.47 goals per game and not a single goalless encounter in the 17 games played thus far. Add to that 82 yellow cards and five dismissals and it is clear to see that the tournament has been anything but difficult viewing in its early stages. 

Much like the Champions League, the Libertadores kicks off with eight groups of four teams vying for a two top finish and a place in the knockout stage. Unlike the Champions League, qualification for the next stage usually goes down to the final round of games, with big teams such as Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and Sao Paulo all scraping through by the skin of their teeth in last year’s running. 

The Libertadores is often the tournament of the underdog, and last year’s winners LDU Quito were no exception. They disposed of Estudiantes, San Lorenzo, Club America and Fluminense on their way to becoming the first ever Ecuadorian club to win the competition, garnering a hero’s welcome on their return from Rio in early July. 

Seven months later, they began their defence at home to Brazilian side Palmeiras, having paid the price for success in such a well-exposed competition. Joffre Guerron, Enrique Vera and Luis Bolanos, all key players in their 2008 success, headed to pastures new, while coach Edgardo Bauza resigned at the end of the year, citing stress. New coach Jorge Fossati probably feared the worst following an indifferent start to their domestic campaign, but would have been more than happy with the performance of his side, who defeated their in-form opponents 3-2 in a pulsating game at the Estadio de Liga Deportiva Universitaria. 

Whether LDU are serious contenders to retain their crown is open to debate, but based on their first showing in the 2009 competition, it would be foolish to write them off as one-hit wonders. However, as per usual, the favourites for the title come from the two dominant nations in the region: Brazil and Argentina. 

Since 1992 at least one Brazilian team has taken part in 14 of the 17 finals played, with two all-Samba clashes in the same period. Coming off the back of three consecutive domestic league triumphs, Sao Paulo will be considered the best equipped of this year’s entrants to challenge for the title. However, they have failed to make it further than the quarter-finals in the last two years, and had to rely on a spectacular injury time equaliser from Borges to salvage a point at home to Independiente Medellin in their Group 4 opener. 

Cruzeiro’s swift passing in midfield makes them a joy to watch at times and cruelly exposed Estudiantes’ lack of pace in their 3-0 victory last week. Despite this, the losses of Marcelo Moreno and Guilherme over the past year are likely to leave them short of the necessary firepower to make a realistic challenge for glory. 

Sport Recife began with a 2-1 victory away to Chilean champions Colo Colo, but are the least likely of the Brazilian sides to go all the way. Palmeiras are an exciting young side, but probably lack the necessary experience, something recognised by their coach Vanderlai Luxemburgo, who labelled some of his players “street kids” following their loss to LDU. 

This leaves Gremio, runners-up in last year’s domestic championship, as perhaps the primary Brazilian challengers. Beaten finalists in 2007, they failed to qualify for last year’s competition, but now back where they will feel they belong, Celso Roth’s side will fancy their chances, despite having to wait until the third round of games to get their campaign underway. 

Boca Juniors, winners of four Libertadores crowns since the millennium, will lead the Argentine charge for glory after keeping hold of the majority of their star players in the January transfer window. They opened with a 1-0 victory at home to Deportivo Cuenca, and despite question marks over coach Carlos Ischia’s handling of the big games, players such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Sebastian Battaglia and Rodrigo Palacio give them a great chance of equalling Independiente’s record of seven Libertadores triumphs. 

San Lorenzo were unlucky to lose out to Boca in the Argentine Apertura and certainly have the potential to become champions of the continent. Unfortunately, they often blow hot and cold, evidenced by a 4-1 win over San Luis, followed by a 1-0 defeat to Universitario in their first two games. Of the other Argentine sides, River Plate are a shadow of their former selves, Estudiantes have little quality in the final third, while Lanus lack the necessary maturity for the knockout stage. 

Outside of the big two nations, it is Nacional of Uruguay, three time winners of the competition, that have been the most impressive side thus far.  Wins over Universidad San Martin and their Paraguayan namesakes have put them in an excellent position to qualify at the top of Group 3. Paraguayan champions Libertad could be another side to look out for, high on confidence after dominating the domestic scene in 2008. 

Two Mexican sides reached the quarter-final stage last year, but neither Chivas or San Luis look likely to replicate that feat this time around, while Colo Colo of Chile, themselves decent performers in years gone by, will struggle to make it out of a difficult group.  

Colombian side Boyaca Chico could be a decent outside bet, as they seem to have a lot in common with last year’s winners LDU, even down to their Argentine play-maker – for LDU’s Damian Manso, read Boyaca’s Miguel Caneo. A hard-working side, they have every chance of escaping Group 7, and once they, or any side for that matter, reach the knockout stage then anything is fair game. 

And that is what makes it so hard to accurately assess any side’s chances of taking home the Libertadores crown. Although the big teams are usually there or thereabouts, there is always some plucky outsider that makes a unlikely bid for glory come the final stages, and it is that, as much as anything else that makes the Libertadores such a compelling competition.


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