By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
The defending champions are suffering from exhaustion, all five of Brazil's representatives are still alive and both Mexican teams that withdrew from last year's tournament over the swine flu debacle make their debuts as the Copa Libertadores Round of 16 kicks off tonight .
Argentina's Estudiantes de la Plata picked up back-to-back 1-0 wins over the past week against Peru's Alianza Lima in Libertadores action and against River Plate in the Argentine Clausura. With a first-leg tie in Mexico tonight versus San Luis, manager Alejandro Sabella chose to rest several key starters, including Juan Sebastian Veron, Rodrigo Brana, Jose Sosa and Mauro Boselli following a schedule-heavy two months. Sabella probably also took into consideration the length of the trip as well as San Luis' current form.
This year's Libertadores champions have a greater chance of being from Brazil with all of their teams — Corinthians, Flamengo, Sao Paulo, Internacional and Cruzeiro — all making the final 16. Corinthians, even with a quiet Ronaldo, advanced as the best team with five wins in six matches while defensively, Sao Paulo and Internacional have been top-notch in that department, only conceding two goals each in their respective six matches.
And it's a tale of two difference sides representing Mexico as Chivas sits in second overall in their domestic league while San Luis are near bottom although that doesn't mean the Goats aren't going through troubles of their own with national-team duty, injuries and transfers affecting plans to make a deep run in Libertadores this year.
This week's first-leg matches will be broadcast on FOX SPORTS EN ESPANOL:
SAN LUIS v. ESTUDIANTES DE LA PLATA, 7:45PM ET
The Mexicans can make a huge statement if they can dispose of the defending champs at home following a poor domestic campaign but the Gladiators need to enforce a strict game plan against an Estudiantes side that, although leaving behind several stars, still have enough depth to snatch a positive away result.
CHIVAS v. VELEZ SARSFIELD, 10PM ET
The Goals are severely depleted for this year's tournament and could be in danger of crashing out quickly, a feat that the Guadalajara side aren't accustomed to given their past success in Libertadores. Chivas will, however, be familiar with many names on the Velez side who have plied their trade in Mexico previously. The focus should be on the Argentine side's Uruguayan tandem of strikers, Santiago Silva and Hernan Rodrigo Lopez, both of whom have seven goals between tem in the tournament.
UNIVERSITARIO DE DEPORTES v. SAO PAULO, 6:30PM ET
Peru's Universitario will be without goalkeeper Raul Fernandez and defender John Galliquio for this series after CONMEBOL confirmed their suspensions for taking part in a fracas following a goalless draw in Argentina against Lanus two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Sao Paulo need Washington and Fernandinho to step up their prowess in front of the goal but are stacked defensively, led by Cicinho, on loan from Roma, and goalie Rogerio, who will make his 900th appearance in a Sao Paulo shirt. Even though La U also boast some defensive talent, they'll be without two key players. Plus, they'll need their offense to wake up after only scoring five goals in six matches.
FLAMENGO v. CORINTHIANS, 8:50PM ET
It's Ronaldo v. Adriano but it's Corinthians that are starved to lift their first Libertadores trophy, especially this year for their centenary. O Timao come in as the top team although they comfortably took a somewhat weak group but still have the means to deploy a base that includes Roberto Carlos, Dentinho, Elias and Dodo along with O Fenomeno. Flamengo are still coming to grips with the firing of its manager and two upper management figures after barely scraping into this round but the scenes at Maracana should be extravagant.
BANFIELD v. INTERNACIONAL, 8:50PM ET
Argentina's Banfield scored the most goals in the group phase (13) and boast one of the more promising young talents in South America, Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez. Plus, they're familiar with Inter's Argentine trio of goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri, Andres D'Alessandro and Pablo Guinazu as well as Uruguayan boss Jorge Fossati, who had managed Colon in the Argentine league. Inter are one of the less glamorous Brazilian teams but their defense only allowed two goals in during the group phase.
CRUZEIRO v. NACIONAL, 6PM ET
Last year's finalists Cruzeiro have bulletin board material to amp them up. Their defenders were called out by Nacional boss Eduardo Acevedo who not only labaled them as uncoordinated but also went on to proudly note that his side are the more historically successful team. Acevedo did, however, praise Cruzeiro's strikers Thiago Ribeiro and current top Libertadores scorer Kleber (7). Nacional, last year's semifinalists, hope midfielder Maxi Calzada will shake off an ankle injury but should have veteran forwards Gustavo Varela and Mario Regueiro ready to elude that supposed shaky Brazilian backline.
ALIANZA LIMA v. UNIVERSIDAD DE CHILE, 8:15PM ET
Peru's Alianza Lima were a revelation early on in the tournament but have suffered a recent dip in form overall. Their initial intensity will need to resurge against a Chilean side that fended off Flamengo and compatriots Univ. Catolica to top their group. Alianza had a chance to top their own group but a 95th-minute hiccup gave Estudiantes a penalty and eventual 1-0 win that downgraded the Peruvians to second place and eight overall in the final 16. Wilmer Aguirre and Jose Carlos Fernandez are the pair of strikers that have connected nicely while Uruguayan striker Juan Manuel Olivera will be the once to watch on la U, whose manager Gerardo Pelusso is an ex-Alianza caretaker.
ONCE CALDAS v. LIBERTAD, 10:30PM ET
Colombia's Once Caldas, 2004 Libertadores champs, welcome one of the top teams in Paraguay. The Colombians have an array of talent at manager Juan Carlos Osorio's disposal but will need the defense to keep their eyes on Libertad's strikers Rodolfo Gamarra and Pablo Velezquez. Both sides are mid-table teams in their respective domestic leagues but have done well in Libertadores and this matchup is one of the more exciting of this round.
What do you think of these matches? Who do you see advancing? Disappointed at the state of Mexico's teams for this year's Libertadores? Share your thoughts below