By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
The Copa Libertadores group phase winds down over the next week as the final matchday approaches. With six sides through and 20 teams still battling for the 10 available spots into the knockout round, this has become one of the more exciting conclusions to the group stage in recent memory.
Brazil's Cruzeiro enters the next round as the most potent offense (17 goals, one conceded) with 22-year-old attacking winger Wallyson (pictured above) netting five goals while teammates Thiago Ribeiro, Roger and Argentine Walter Montillo each have scored three. Argentine frontman Roberto Nanni of Paraguay's Cerro Porteno continues to lead all scorers with seven tallies.
Meanwhile, defending champion Internacional of Brazil leads its group but by a slim margin and even fired manager Celso Roth last week following a 1-0 loss in Mexico to Jaguares. Team officials blamed a growing tension between Roth and fans, many of whom still haven't forgiven him for Inter's early exit in the FIFA Club World Cup last year. Inter named legend Paulo Roberto Falcao as his successor.
Below is this week's schedule and a look ahead to all of the matches (some games will be broadcast on FSE):
LDU Quito (Ecuador) v. Godoy Cruz (Argentina)
The Ecuadoreans just need a draw to move on from Group 8 and will be at home in front of their rabid fan base at the Casablanca. Godoy will be without its marksman Ruben Ramirez. Both sit on seven points, behind already-qualified Penarol.
Penarol (Uruguay) v. Independiente (Argentina)
In what should have been a mouth-watering encounter between the historic rivals, the match will only serve as the debut of the soccer world's largest banner that 250 Penarol supporters hope to display in what should be the clincher for first place for the Uruguayan giants. The Argentines will field a team of reserves as they need about eight goals to even think about advancing.
Colo Colo (Chile) v. Deportivo Tachia (Venezuela)
The Chileans, with six points from four matches, can clinch tonight at home in this Group 5 contest and will welcome back veterans Esteban Paredes and Rodrigo Millar but will be missing Andres Scotti and Cristobal Jorquera through suspensions. The Venezuelans are a long shot from advancing as they only have two points but are still mathematically alive.
Estudiantes de la Plata (Argentina) v. Cruzeiro (Brazil)
Cruzeiro is a lock to wrap up the top spot in Group 7, which is why Estudiantes will likely have a youthful lineup for this encounter. The Argentine side is also through to the next phase after clinching second place in the group.
Guarani (Paraguay) v. Deportes Tolima (Colombia)
The Paraguayans want three points against the Colombians to avoid being the worst team in this year's edition with two goals marked and 14 leaked.
Cerro Porteno (Paraguay) v. Santos (Brazil)
The Paraguayans lead Group 5 and will look to book their ticket into the next stage and forget about their domestic woes after suffering their fourth straight loss over the weekend. Disappointing Santos needs results in its final two matches but will be without teen sensation Neymar for this round after he was sent off last week for wearing a mask of himself that he plucked from fans to celebrate a goal against Colo Colo. Santos will also be without Ze Eduardo and Elano, also through suspensions.
Caracas (Venezuela) v. Velez Sarsfield (Argentina)
Group 4 leader Caracas, on nine points, was not the favorite to lead the table at this point, much less win it, and now have the chance to clinch against an erratic Velez side. The Argentines will bank on momentum after coming off of a weekend win that propelled them to second place in the Argentine Clausura championship.
Universidad Catolica (Chile) v. Union Espanola (Chile)
U Catolica have a busy week ahead of them and all against compatriot counterparts. La U, trailing Caracas by a point, can clinch a passage into the knockout stage at home and then looks forward to its derby against Colo Colo in the Chilean championship. Influential midfielder Milovan Mirosevic is back in the first XI after recuperating from injury.
Oriente Petrolero (Bolivia) v. Gremio (Brazil)
The Bolivians are out but will look to play spoiler as the Brazilians still seek the top of Group 2.
Atletico Junior (Colombia) v. Leon de Huanuco (Peru)
The Colombians suffered their first loss in five matches last week in Brazil but should clinch the summit over a weak Leon.
Who will qualify? Looking forward to the knockout round? Who disappointed the most?
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