By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
South America's premier club competition, the Copa Libertadores, kicks off its 51st edition this week as the first stages have 12 teams battling for six spots available into the group phases where eventually 40 teams from the continent as well as Mexico will see action in the upcoming months.
Because of the World Cup in June, Libertadores will continue through late summer. The tournament will be missing the likes of Argentina powers Boca Juniors and River Plate and Uruguay giant Penarol. All have suffered poor campaigns recently in their respective leagues, dooming them to absence from South America's top contest.
Despite this, Argentina could still have up to six representatives in group play along with defending champions Estudiantes de la Plata with Banfield, Colon, Lanus, Newell's Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield vying to take advantage of the missing Boca and River. Brazil will see Ronald and Roberto Carlos enjoying a taste of Libertadores action with Corinthians, who are celebrating their centenary this year.
Meanwhile, Adriano's Flamengo, Internacional, Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro seek to give Brazil its first Libertadores title since 2006. Mexico has five teams in this year's edition with Morelia, Monterrey and Estudiantes Tecos qualifying while Chivas and San Luis are special invitees from last year's debacle when both squads quit after CONMEBOL decided to move their home ties elsewhere following the swine flu crisis.
However, the focus will be on the six home-and-away tilts this week and next to determine which teams will complete the 40-team tournament that starts group matches beginning Feb. 9.
Here is a quick preview of the first legs (which will be broadcast on Fox Sports en Espanol):
COLON DE SANTA FE v. UNIVERSIDAD CATOLICA, 5PM
Chile's U. Catolica travel to Argentina and will have to contain a familiar face in Esteban Fuertes, Colon's marksman who is the club's all-time leading scorer with 110 goals in two stints. Fuertes plied his trade with Catolica in 2007 where he netted 21 goals in 36 matches. Catolica midfielder Milovan Mirosevic could be key to control the Chilean attack.
DEPORTIVO TACHIRA v. LIBERTAD, 8:30PM
Former Red Bulls midfielder Jorge Rojas makes his debut with Tachira, his fifth club in his homeland of Venezuela, and will look to orchestrate his side against a consistent Paraguayan side in Libertad. With four new signings, the Venezuelans have opened up their domestic season with a tie and a win and are on a momentum to continue its streak.
NEWELL'S OLD BOYS v. EMELEC, 4:30PM
Ecuador's Emelec shouldn't have trouble making their way around the city of Rosario, Argentina–their manager, Jorge Sampaoli, is from there but he won't be playing tourist guide. Instead, all focus will be on young Uruguayan forward Joaquin Boghossian, one of the revelations of the Argentine Apertura season last year. For Emelec, they could have a solution in controlling Boghossian with their own newly-signed youngster, defender Deison Mendez, who has worked in Inter Milan's youth system and has attracted attention from abroad. Emelec will also have to worry about its Paraguayan midfielder Fernando Gimenez, who is nursing an injury.
REAL POTOSI v. CRUZEIRO, 6:50PM
Brazil's Cruzeiro have been in Bolivia since Thursday, making their way to Santa Cruz and then to Sucre and plan to trek to Potosi on the day of the match. Through press reports, the Brazilians have labeled the Bolivians' strategy as "run and hit" but hope to match their physiciality in the country's highest-elevated city where shortness of breath is common among non-Bolivian teams. The Bolivians are weighing the option of deploying a three-man attack in an effort to tire Cruzeiro and try and build a large advantage.
JUAN AURICH v. ESTUDIANTES TECOS, 9:10PM
Tecos manager Miguel Herrera feels that Peruvian side Aurich don't have enough chemistry, are already displaying signs of friction among themselves and also mislabeled them as a team that fought from relegation. Herrera's analysis was a result of sloppy scouting by his assistant who attended Aurich's 2-1friendly loss last week to Costa Rica's Saprissa in a brawl-marred match. Aurich has slowly climbed to gain respectability among its Peruvian league peers, mainly because of its deep pockets that were enough to lure young Peruvian starlet Reimond Manco back home on loan from PSV Eindhoven. Aurich's Colombian manager, Luis Fernando Suarez, who guided Ecuador to the 2006 World Cup, has assembled a talented group but will have its work cut out against Tecos, which displayed a decent showing at the Interliga tournament.
JUNIOR v. RACING (Uruguay), 6:10PM
Seven new signings at Colombia's Junior Barranquilla side could give it an advantage against Libertadores newbies Racing of Uruguay. The Colombian outfit lost Teofilo Gutierrez to Turkish club Trabzonspor but still have veteran playmaker Giovanni Hernandez in midfield. Racing, a modest side in the shadows of its compatriot giants Penarol, Nacional and Defensor Sporting, fared well in last year's domestic campaign.
Are you looking forward to this year's tournament? Who can you see winning it all?
Share your thoughts on the 2010 Copa Libertadores in the comments section below.