Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Copa Libertadores preview

One of the most-watched football tournaments in the world, the group stage of the Copa Libertadores gets properly underway this week. The tournament has the same structure as the UEFA Champions League, in that there are eight groups of four teams, and the top two teams progress to the knockout rounds. In South America, all but two of the opening group games will take place this week, with Fluminense x Argentinos Juniors played last week (a 2-2 draw), and Independiente x Peñarol to take place next week.

So with 14 games, 28 teams, 11 nations represented and a stonking 49,000km to be travelled by the away teams, you could be forgiven for feeling a little bit out of your depth. However, have no fear, as we preview all of this week's action, game-by-game.

Tuesday 15th February

Vélez Sársfield x Caracas
Deportes Tolima x Guaraní
Deportivo Tachira x Santos
San Luis x Libertad
América x Nacional

First up we go to Buenos Aires, where Torneo Apertura runners-up Vélez Sársfield take on the 2009/10 Venezuelan champions Caracas. Both teams have just started the 2010/11 season in each of their respective nations, Vélez played out an exciting 2-2 draw with Independiente, while Caracas are 5 games in with a fairly poor 7 points. By all accounts this should be a pretty straighforward win for Vélez, as Caracas are not a team for them to fear, a far-cry from the side that shocked the whole of South America by reaching the quarter finals in 2009.

Next we go north to the west of Colombia, where Deportes Tolima play Guaraní of Paraguay in the Group 7 opener. There has been much talk surrounding Tolima recently, after famously eliminating Brazilian giants Corinthians in the qualifying rounds. It is generally accepted that Corinthians did not take their opponents seriously enough, and were caught off guard by Tolima's high tempo attacking play during the second leg in Ibagué. Los Piajos will have no such element of surprise tonight, as they take on a Guaraní side who will have prepared well for this encounter. It is imperative for each of these sides to take points off each other in this group, as with Cruzeiro and Estudiantes de la Plata widely expected to sail through in first and second spot, every point is absolutely vital for these other two sides.

We stay in the north of the continent for our next game, as the tournament's early favourites Santos begin their campaign with an away trip to Venezuela to take on Deportivo Táchira. Santos have made a good start to the season, sitting in second place in the Campeonato Paulista, while their opponents Táchira are in an interesting position, having already sealed their qualification to next year's group stages by winning the Apertura in Venezuela. O Peixe expect to start with Neymar up front, partered by either Keirrison or the impressive Maikon Leite. It will be Neymar's first appearence for Santos since winning the South American U-20 Championships in Peru. Santos will be looking for three points in what they hope will be a long and successful Libertadores campaign, while Táchira may just be hoping not to lose by several goals.

Finally we go to Mexico for the two late kick-offs, as San Luis host Libertad and América play Nacional in what is undoubtedly the game of the day. One factor in these games is the absolutely huge distances that the away sides have had to travel, Libertad have gone 6,600km from the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, while Nacional have travelled the longest distance anyone will travel in this year's Libertadores, a truly stunning 7,100km from Montevideo. The games themselves should be interesting affairs, Libertad will be aiming to get some points on the board early in Group 1, a group they are expecting to top. In the other match, every single point will be so valuable in Group 3, and with Fluminense and Argentinos Juniors playing out a 2-2 draw in the opening game, either of these sides will be desperate to sit in first place at the end of the week.

Wednesday 16th February

Unión Española x Universidad Católica
Cruzeiro x Estudiantes de la Plata
Emelec x Internacional
Jaguares x Jorge Wilstermann
Once Caldas x Universidad San Martín

Wednesday's action kicks off in Santiago with an all-Chilean affair as Unión Española take on Universidad Católica in Group 4. Although not a traditional rivalry, these two Santiago clubs will both be absolutely desperate for the points in this one. Group 4 looks like an easy win for the previously mentioned Vélez Sársfield, so these teams will regard each other as the direct competition for second place. It promises to be a good game of football, as both of these sides have an attractive, flowing style of play. Unión usually adopt a 4-2-1-3 with Uruguayan playmaker Ligüera pulling the strings behind the front three, while Universidad go for a more "Italian" 4-3-1-2.

Next is the game of the round, and arguably the game of the entire group stage, Cruzeiro x Estudiantes de la Plata. A replay of the 2009 final (Estudiantes ended up winners on that occasion), these are two of the biggest clubs in recent Copa Libertadores history. However Estudiantes will go in to this year's tournament without the coach that presided over their recent success (and the Libertadores win over Cruzeiro in 2009), Alejandro Sabella, who decided to leave his post last month. The shock of Sabella's departure may cause problems for the Argentine champions, however the talented and hard-working squad is still there, and they will be expecting nothing less than victory. I'm expecting a close game in this one, possibly a draw or perhaps Cruzeiro to sneak it by one goal.

While all the fuss is going on in Minas Gerais, the reigning champions Internacional begin their defence of the trophy in Group 6 away to Emelec of Ecuador. In preparation for this tournament, Inter have adopted an interesting strategy and are only using their B team in the Campeonato Gaúcho, choosing not to over-work their stars for the Libertadores and the Brasileirão. They should win this game and go on to qualify comfortably from the group, however I do not feel Inter have been anywhere near the same side that won last year's tournament.

After the 2010 success, praise was heaped upon Andres D'Alessandro, Tinga and super-sub Giuliano, while the invaluable play of winger Taison was somewhat overlooked, and he was sold to Metalist Kharkiv in the Ukraine. Since then, Inter have suffered from "possession without penetration" without a pacey, direct player like Taison. This frailty was exposed to the whole world in December, where they failed to make possession count and fell to TP Mazembe in the World Club Cup. In the recent transfer window, they neglected to replace Taison with someone of similar attributes, opting instead to sign two more Argentines, forward Fernando Cavenaghi and defensive midfielder Mario Bolatti, and Zé Roberto from Vasco. It is my opinion that if Inter try to play the same way as they have since last year, they will really struggle against any organised side. 

The other game in group six kicks off just afterwards, with Jaguares of Mexico hosting Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Both teams are in interesting positions coming in to this year's tournament, the Mexican side have started very poorly in the 2011 Torneo Clausura which puts them in real danger of relegation this year, so they will most likely be focusing on improving their domestic form as opposed to preparing for continental competition. However Jorge Wilstermann are in an even worse position, finishing in last place in the second half of last year and finding themselves relegated to the second tier of Bolivian football. Understandably, Wilster will have their eyes on domestic promotion instead of Libertadores success, though their domestic campaign does not kick-off until June. Poor domestic form aside, Jaguares are clear favourites in this one, expect a good few goals for the home team.

The final game on Wednesday night takes place in Colombia, as Once Caldas take on Peruvian champions Universidad San Martín. This will be an extremely tough match for San Martín, as Once are very hard to beat at the Estadio Palogrande in Manizales, this superb home form being one of the main reasons for their surprise Libertadores success in 2004. San Martín will have a good go at it though, they have very little to lose as they do not exactly have a long history or large numbers of fanatic supporters. Their story is an interesting one, founded in 2004 by the local university (the Universidad San Martín de Porres), they have since won three Peruvian titles in their six short years in operation. They have a small support, mainly just students at the university, and their mascot is a man dressed as a tooth, a homage to the fact that most of their fans are studying dentistry.

Thursday 17th February

Léon de Húanuco x Junior
Grêmio x Oriente Petrolero
Cerro Porteño x Colo-Colo
Godoy Cruz x LDU Quito

Opening Thursday night's matches, we go to Peru with Léon de Húanuco taking on Junior Barranquilla of Colombia in Group 2. This is Léon's first appearence in the Copa Libertadores, after reaching the final of the Peruvian championships this year. Unlike the previously mentioned San Martín, Léon have a good number of fans, and they will be out in force on Thursday night to try and unsettle their Colombian opponents. This is an absolutely key game in Group 2, as with Grêmio expected to run away with the top spot, there are three fairly low-profile sides fighting for the second place. Additionally, this game should be quite an interesting tactical battle, with the home side adopting a 3-4-1-2 against Junior's favoured 4-3-1-2.

The other game in Group 2 kicks off right after, with group favourites Grêmio hosting Bolivian champions Oriente Petrolero. With the sale of their top-scorer Jonas to Valencia at the start of the year, there is definitely a big gap in this Grêmio squad. Also with replacement André Lima misfiring up front, it looks like they may struggle for goals this year. It is expected that Grêmio may find things tough in this year's Copa Libertadores, but they should not have any problems against the refineros from Santa Cruz.

Later we have one of the most important games of the round, one sure to attract a lot of attention from the two nations involves, as Cerro Porteño, the biggest club in Paraguay, take on Colo-Colo, Chile's biggest side. This promises to be a grand spectacle, with La Olla Azulgrana in Asunción bound to be full to the brim. I'm expecting a win for the away side, as they seem to have the better squad at the present time, all that remains to be seen is if they can overcome Cerro's home advantage. Keep an eye out for Colo-Colo's front two, Ezequiel Miralles and Esteban Paredes, a partnership that brings plenty of goals.

The last game of the week sees the Libertadores group stage come to the Argentine province of Mendoza for the first time as Godoy Cruz host Ecuadorian champions LDU Quito. You would be hard pressed to find a tougher game for Godoy Cruz to start their Libertadores story than against veterans and 2008 champions LDU Quito. A very organised and very hard to beat side, Liga de Quito will have their eyes on the trophy this year. At their home ground in Quito they are a huge challenge for any team thanks to their stadium being at such high altitude, and they pride themselves in their fitness and being able to stretch their opponents for the full 90 minutes, in high altitude or not. Godoy Cruz will have a very tough job in this one, but perhaps they can get a slice of beginner's luck.

So that's it! It promises to be a great week of Libertadores action, and hopefully reading this has given you a bit of useful background information. Regarding where to watch the games, in Europe, www.bet365.com will be showing every single Libertadores game this week through their Live Streaming service. It is completely free of charge and all you need to do is register on the site and you can get access to every Libertadores match this season, straight from your computer. For readers in the UK, you will be pleased to hear that the Copa Libertadores will be shown live on TV thanks to the new Premier Sports channel. They will broadcast Cruzeiro x Estudiantes on Wednesday night, check their website for more information. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Mauro Formica - He's no Batistuta...

In an interesting January transfer window with several big money moves all over Europe, over at Gibfootballshow I profile the newest arrival at Blackburn Rovers, Argentine number ten Mauro Formica.

Click here for the article

A big thanks to Gibfootballshow for inviting me to write the article, I recommend you take a look round there, a truly excellent site with articles and features from all over the world. Check out the Gibfootballshow podcast too, great football chat once a week, a must for your iPod.