Brazilian clubs aim to upset Boca party
With all the teams finally confirmed after a round of qualifying matches and the first group games underway, the 2008 Copa Libertadores looks set to entertain as never before.
While there is always an element of unpredictability in South America's version of the UEFA Champions League, the 49th edition has been billed as a battle between Brazil and Argentina. And rightly so.
Six of the ten finalists over the last five years have come from Brazil, while Argentina's Boca Juniors have won the competition four times since the year 2000. Indeed, in its 48 year history there have only ever been four winners from countries outside of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay - and even then the last Uruguayan win by Nacional was in 1988.
The domination is such that this year's tournament contains eleven teams from the so-called 'Big Two', including the 2007 winners Boca Juniors, and few can see beyond another win for Carlos Ischia's side.
The acquisition of midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme from Villarreal will be key to their defence of the title. The playmaker was a massive part of their successful campaign last season and much will rely on his attacking threat. Up front, Martin Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio should provide a decent goal threat, while Lucas Castromán will attempt to pull the strings alongside Riquelme.
Despite losing their talented youngster Ever Banega to Valencia, Boca look well placed to retain their title and another win would represent a record equalling seven titles for the Buenos Aires club.
Their biggest challenge will obviously come from Brazil and most likely in the form of reigning Brazilian champions Sao Paulo. Even without on-loan Inter striker Adriano (who looks likely to be suspended for at least four months after head-butting Santos defender Domingos last week), the Brazilians are still primed for an assault on the title - building on an impressive defensive foundation.
Former Corinthians forward Carlos Alberto has been lured back on loan and will form the basis of Sao Paulo's attacking play, while goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni will also be a potent threat from free-kicks, as well as attempting to keep them out at the other end. Sao Paulo set a Championship record last season, conceding just 19 goals in 38 games, and will look for more of the same in the Libertadores.
Elsewhere in Brazil, Cruzeiro will pose an interesting threat after their free-scoring forwards notched up 73 goals in last year's Championship. Midfielder Ramires has already impressed with a few goals in the qualifying rounds, while creativity and dynamism comes in the form of circus-performer Kerlon 'The Seal', who is attracting a lot of interest from Europe. They may fall down when it comes to defending, but their all out attacking philosophy is sure to set pulses racing. A 3-0 win over Real Potosí proved this, but they may come unstuck against some more high profile opponents.
Santos also have a chance to shine with their young stars and have a decent group draw to help them. Although they may not be boasting the likes of Robinho or Diego anymore, they have built a decent side who finished second in last year's Championship and will be disappointed with a 0-0 draw against Cúcuta Deportivo in their first game.
Flamengo and Fluminense have a rich history in the Brazilian game, although they have struggled to assert themselves in recent times. Flamengo have an impressive midfield, with former Manchester United player Kleberson and ex-PSV striker Diego Tardelli attempting to resurrect their careers at the club, and can count on a strong fan-base - despite the fact that they last won the trophy in 1982. Fluminense have a dreadful record in the competition and have looked to rectify that with investment in their forward line. Washington and Dodo have come in to boost their striking options and, under young coach Renato Gaucho, they could spring a surprise or two.
With the Brazilian sides more than well equipped to challenge Boca, many eyes will be on Argentina's River Plate to put up a decent run of their own after they scraped into the tournament. 1996 was the last time they walked away with success in the Libertadores and, under new coach Diego Simeone, River have more attacking intent.
The likes of midfield playmaker Ariel Ortega and former Ajax winger Mauro Rosales should provide decent service into the box, while Uruguayan forward Sebastian Abreu will bear the burden of their goalscoring. Poor in attack last season, River's hopes of upsetting their local rivals will hinge on an ability to find the net on a regular basis - something they failed to do in their first game against San Martin, which they lost 2-0.
San Lorenzo were tipped to make a big impression on the competition after winning the Argentine Clausura last year, and made former Portsmouth and Real Zaragoza playmaker Andres d'Alessandro their big summer signing. However, they were upset by Caracas FC in the first group game; along with another of Argentina's hopefuls - the Juan Sebastian Veron led Estudiantes-La Plata - who lost to Ecuador's Deportivo Cuenca.
With qualifiers Arsenal and Lanus the only other challengers to come from Argentina, it's very hard to see beyond River or Boca if an Argentinean side are going to walk away with the prize this year.
Keen to break up the duopoly, however, two teams from Mexico stand a good chance of causing an upset, as clubs from the North American country have a good record in the competition since they were invited to participate in 1998. Chivas Guadalajara have an impressive host of Mexican internationals in their squad, including captain Ramon Morales and striker Omar Bravo and should be Mexico's best hope of success if they can recreate their league form.
America may have something to say about that as they reached the final of the Copa Sudamericana last year and have Paraguayan forward Salvador Cabanas in good form. Certainly, America are in a better position to qualify than the third Mexican side in the competition, Atlas, who have been drawn in Group 3 alongside current holders Boca Juniors.
Some real outsiders to make a name for themselves include Atletico Nacional of Colombia, winners of the Colombian Apertura in 2007, who will have a tough time in their group against Sao Paulo. Venezuela's Caracas FC, who impressed everyone last year by finishing in the last sixteen and beating River Plate both home and away in the group stages, have already upset the form books by sinking Argentine hopefuls San Lorenzo in the first game.
Elsewhere, shocks could come from Colo Colo of Chile, who won both Championships last season with the help of the Monterrey-bound Humberto Suazo and will go head-to-head with Mexico's Atlas for the second spot behind Boca. Last year's quarter-finalists, Libertad of Paraguay, may also raise a few eyebrows if they can overcome newcomers Arsenal of Argentina in Group 8.
However, with a number of hopefuls all vying to make a name for themselves, it would take a lot for one of these sides to become the fifth team outside of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to take home the title. The Copa Libertadores is usually full of surprises, but the reality is that the winner will most likely come from either Brazil or Argentina, with Boca Juniors the favourites to make history and retain their title. By early July, we'll have found out for sure.