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 By Tim Vickery

Cruzeiro vs. Huracan top must-see Copa Libertadores matches this week

Leandro Damiao and Cruzeiro have finally appeared to hit their stride this season.

Just three teams have mathematically sealed their place in the knockout stages of the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. Another three have no possibility of making the cut. That means that until Wednesday of next week, 26 clubs are competing for 13 remaining slots. Here are some of the hottest places to look over the next few days.


Group 3 stages its penultimate round

Cruzeiro (Brazil) have eight points, Universitario Sucre (Bolivia) have six, Huracan (Argentina) four and Mineros (Venezuela) one.

This has been the tightest of the eight groups, with the fewest goals scored. Indeed, only Mineros have lost a game. Everyone else is unbeaten, with Cruzeiro sitting pretty because they have won two of their four matches. They now visit Huracan of Argentina, who have drawn all of theirs.

It is an intriguing clash. On the back foot, Huracan gained a creditable 0-0 draw when these sides met last month in Belo Horizonte. The Brazilians, however, have come on since then. Key players were suddenly sold at the start of the year, and coach Marcelo Oliveira has been patiently rebuilding. Reinforcements such as centre-forward Leandro Damiao and Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta are starting to come good. Moreover, Huracan have to win this game, which will surely offer the Brazilians more space on the counter-attack.

On the other hand, Cruzeiro may pay the price for selecting a full-strength side for a domestic local derby against Atletico Mineiro on Sunday. Two games, just 51 hours apart with a journey in between may sap their legs.

This, then, is set up to be a fascinating chapter of Argentina versus Brazil in the Libertadores. A draw will ensure Cruzeiro's place in the knockout rounds, and it will also be enough for Universitario, providing the Bolivians win at home against Mineros. Theoretically this is the easiest game of the series, but Universitario are taking no chances as they look to debut in the knockout phase in only the second Libertadores campaign in their history.

They asked for Saturday's domestic game against Bolivar to be rescheduled. When it was not, they responded with a protest -- sending just seven players, the minimum required. All of them were youth players, and the match was abandoned after 13 minutes when one of them suffered an injury.

Group 8 stages its final round

Racing (Argentina) have qualified, Deportivo Tachira (Venezuela) are eliminated. The remaining slot will go to either Sporting Cristal (Peru -- 6 points) or Guarani (Paraguay -- 8 points), who meet in Lima.

No group has provided more goals than this one, and there should be more fireworks in store in the finale between Cristal and Guarani.

The momentum is with the Paraguayans, under Spanish coach Fernando Jubero. They beat Racing last week, while Cristal played out the tamest of 0-0 draws away to Tachira. But their captain and midfield inspiration Carlos Lobaton returns to the team for this match, and he should serve as a supply line for tricky striker Irven Avila.

Eyeing the semifinals, Colo Colo have a tricky match with Santa Fe.


Group 1 stages its penultimate round

Colo Colo (Chile) have nine points, Santa Fe (Colombia) and Atletico Mineiro (Brazil) have six and Atlas (Mexico) have three.

This is a group where none of the games have so far ended in a draw. No one is safe and no one is out. And if Atlas win their last two matches, they can still sneak into the knockout stage.

They have only scored two goals so far -- a very disappointing return for an attack-minded team, and they will want to give their supporters something to cheer about on Wednesday. Opponents Atletico will have made a long journey after a tiring local derby against Cruzeiro on Sunday. Argentine centre-forward Lucas Pratto was rested, which makes eminent sense. He has quickly established himself as the most important player in the team. Without him, Atletico lost their first two matches. Once he was fit, they won the next two to put themselves right in contention to qualify.

Over recent seasons Atletico have staged some miracle comebacks -- but usually in front of their own fans. Away performances have been poor. Last month, however, they won away to Santa Fe. Was this a flash in the pan, or can they do it again in Mexico?

Meanwhile in Santiago, Colo Colo have an intriguing game against Santa Fe. The Colombians won an attractive 3-1 contest when the sides met in Bogota at the end of February, and the rematch promises to be just as open. Neither side will be entirely happy with a draw -- especially if Atletico come out on top in Mexico.

Colo Colo are talking in terms of reaching the semifinals. But despite their three-point lead, they are not safe just yet. They have to go to Brazil next week and will want to make sure they have their place sealed before meeting Atletico. Santa Fe perhaps deserved better than their 2-0 defeat away to Atletico last week. Their ever-competitive coach Gustavo Costas will be looking for a reaction from his men in Santiago in a match that promises to be one of the highlights of the week.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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