Sunday, 10 April 2011

Copa Libertadores Preview: Group Round-up

The group stage of the 2011 Copa Libertadores is coming to a close. Six teams have already booked their place in the next round, but there is plenty of action still to come, with ten more spots to play for in the next round.

We've got eight groups in total, so let's get right to it. Also I've included a little list of links below for you to navigate easier through the groups.

Group 1/Group 2/Group 3/Group 4/Group 5/Group 6/Group 7/Group 8

Group 1

Group 1 was always going to fall under the radar a bit in this year’s Libertadores, being the only group not containing any teams from the two huge CONMEBOL associations, Brazil and Argentina. As it stands, with one match left, Libertad of Paraguay are way out in front (more or less as expected), but the race for second place is still extremely tight.

Currently occupying the second qualifying spot with six points is Universidad San Martín of Peru. A tiny side formed by the local university and with a fanbase largely made up of a handful of dentistry students, San Martín will surely be the biggest shock if they manage to progress to the knockout rounds.

Their rivals for second place have been pretty disappointing in their performances so far, San Luis of Mexico and Once Caldas of Colombia (the 2004 Libertadores champions). But there is only two points separating the three clubs, so either side could realistically end up in the knockout stage.

The final round of games in Group 1 takes place on Tuesday 19th April, with Libertad hosting San Luis, and Once Caldas travelling to Lima to play Universidad San Martín. Each team’s situation is as follows, Libertad are five points clear in first place, and they know that win, lose or draw vs San Luis, they are guaranteed to be through as group winners. This, and the fact that they have a very important league match against Cerro Porteño on the weekend after the San Luis game, means they will probably take it easy against San Luis, possibly resting some first team players.

The team currently in second place, Universidad San Martín, have plenty of reasons to fancy themselves as favourites to progress. They know that one more win at home will guarantee their qualification, and even a draw would put them through if San Luis fail to beat Libertad. However their form has been rather poor, after a miraculous start winning their first two games, they have since fallen to three defeats, conceding 9 goals in the process.

San Martín striker Alemanno celebrates scoring against Once Caldas (Photo: EFE)

The other two sides San Luis and Once Caldas have similar chances to progress, the Mexicans know that the only way they can qualify is if they defeat Libertad and Universidad San Martín fail to beat Once Caldas. This is no impossible task, considering that Libertad are in no need to win their match and that San Martín have been in dreadful form, therefore it would be fair to say that San Luis are favourites to go through. Once Caldas know they need to defeat Universidad San Martín and count on San Luis to fail to beat Libertad. Again, this isn’t impossible, so really it is anyone’s guess at this stage as to who will qualify in second place.

Predictions: Libertad 2x1 San Luis, Univ.San Martín 0x1 Once Caldas
(with these results, Libertad and Once Caldas would advance)

Group 2

We can go through Group 2 rather quickly, as our two qualifiers have already been determined; Junior Barranquilla of Colombia and Grêmio of Brazil. There was never really much doubt in this group, as there exists a huge divide in quality between the top two and bottom two sides. Grêmio of course are a side with quality, they are bicampeões of the Libertadores (they’ve won it twice), and they were certainly the most impressive side in the second half of last season’s Brasileirão. Junior Barranquilla, although not to the same level as Grêmio, are a side with a proud history, and with great quality, with some veteran South American legends like Jhon Viafara and Giovanni Hernandez. The other two, León de Huánuco from Peru and Bolivians Oriente Petrolero, have played the role of whipping boys.

There is one round of games remaining in group 2, but both are of little importance, with Junior and Grêmio comfortably qualified. On Thursday, Junior host León at their lovely Metropolitano stadium in Barranquilla, and Oriente Petrolero play Grêmio in Santa Cruz. If Junior avoid defeat in the match against León, they will qualify as group winners.

Predictions: Junior 2x0 León de Huánuco, Oriente Petrolero 1x3 Grêmio

Group 3

Right from the start, this group was tipped as one of the best in this year’s tournament, and it is certainly living up to the expectation, with the qualification race going right down to the wire. With only one match to go for each team, the group is delicately poised with only four points separating 1st and 4th place. Club América of Mexico are in first position with nine points, Argentinos Juniors and Nacional of Uruguay are both in second with seven points each, and Brazilian champions Fluminense are bottom with five points. The final games will both be on the 20th April, as Nacional play América in the famous Centenário stadium, and its Argentina versus Brazil as Argentinos Juniors play Fluminense.

There are several possible outcomes in this group, with all four teams in with a shout of qualifying, and only Fluminense are unable to finish in first place. The favourites to qualify are Club América of Mexico, they currently top the group and will qualify with a win, a draw, and they can even afford to lose their final game providing Argentinos fail to beat Fluminense. Despite this commanding position, Club América haven’t been particularly impressive so far in this year’s tournament, and their success is possibly more down to their opponents slipping up than América themselves playing well.

It is suggested that their huge home advantage is also playing a part in their success, the Azteca in Mexico City is a terribly long journey for all of their three opponents, and the stadium itself has a significant altitude difference to that of the other three’s home grounds. The evidence is there for all to see; Club América won all three of their home games at the Azteca, and lost in both encounters on the road. Personally, I doubt Club América’s chances of winning their match in Montevideo, and their qualification may end up depending entirely on the other result.

The next best chance of qualification lies with América’s opponents Nacional. Los Albos qualify with a home win in their last game, a draw also sees them through providing Fluminense beat Argentinos by two goals or less. It’s not a particularly easy situation for Nacional, but at the world famous Centenário in Montevideo, Nacional have what it takes to beat anyone, especially a Club América side with poor away form and who will have travelled 7,100km to get to the game.

Argentinos Juniors are currently in second position, but they still have a lot of work to do if they want to advance to the next round. They face Fluminense at home in what will be a very hard game, and they know that they need to win or draw (only if América manage to beat Nacional) to qualify for the knockout phase. Considering the unlikelihood of an América win in the other match, Argentinos will be going in to their final game looking for a win, and even though it is against the team in 4th place, Fluminense are certainly no pushovers.

Fluminense, 2010 Brasileirão champions, were tipped to go far in this year’s tournament, but two points out of their first three games put them in huge trouble. Despite a spirited 3-2 win at home against Club América, Fluminense’s coach Muricy Ramalho left the club, and Flu suffered their second defeat of the campaign against Nacional. That result left them in 4th spot and with only five points from five games, hardly the form of Brazilian champions. The dream is not over though, and Fluminense still hold on to an outside chance and will qualify if they defeat Argentinos Juniors and América manage to win in Uruguay. Neither of these prerequisites for qualification are straightforward, Flu will do very well to win in Buenos Aires, and as we mentioned, América winning in Montevideo is a pretty big ask.

Fluminense's Souza during their defeat against Nacional (Photo: Reuters)

To illustrate the severity of the situation, famous Brazilian sports statistician Tristão Garcia (who always pops up around this time and near the end of the league season) gave Fluminense a calculated 8% chance of qualification, as opposed to the 67, 66 and 59% he gave to América, Nacional and Argentinos respectively. While speaking to TV Globo, Tristão went even further and claimed that Fluminense qualifying would be like “a ray of lightning striking in the same spot three times”. Perhaps a bit of an overreaction, but it is undeniable that Flu are up against it.

Predictions: Nacional 2x0 Club América, Argentinos Juniors 3x2 Fluminense
(with these results, Argentinos and Nacional would qualify)

Group 4

With one game to go, a glance at the Group 4 standings would give any South American fan quite a surprise. Before the start of the tournament, this group gave the impression of being rather predictable, with Vélez Sársfield and their wealth of attackers being tipped to walk away with top spot. The two Chilean sides, Universidad Católica and Unión Española were expected to battle it out against each other for second place, and Caracas FC from the Venezuelan capital weren’t given a chance.

Now that all the teams have played five games, the group is looking rather different. Vélez have struggled to impress, epitomized by throwing away a 3-1 lead to lose at home against Universidad Católica, and they currently sit in third spot. The two Chilean sides played out an exciting match against one another in the first week, but neither side have really got going, Universidad Católica in second with eight points, and Unión Española already eliminated.

With nine points, the unfancied Caracas FC side leads the group. When they lost their first game 3-0 against Vélez, they were perhaps unlucky to concede three goals, but they offered little in attack. Since then, they won home and away against Unión, and recorded an excellent 3-1 win in Santiago against Universidad Católica, where they managed to score three times in under three minutes. Even if Caracas still fails to qualify, they can be very proud of their campaign.

As I have mentioned, only three of the four sides still have a chance of qualifying, but these final fixtures are sure to bring plenty of excitement. Both games take place on April 14th, with Caracas hosting Vélez Sársfield and the two Chilean sides facing off against eachother, this time at the Estadio San Carlos de Apoquindo, the home ground of Universidad Católica.

Caracas players celebrate their win against UC (Photo: Reuters)

To preview each side’s requirements for qualification, let’s start with the leaders Caracas FC. Caracas have a very tricky game against Vélez, they lost the away leg of this fixture 3-0, but they know that they just need one point to guarantee qualification. Furthermore, if Universidad Católica lose in the other match, Caracas will qualify automatically regardless of their result with Vélez.

Universidad Católica are in a fairly decent position to qualify, because thanks to their superior goal difference over Caracas, they also only require one point to guarantee qualification. Similar to Caracas, they also have an ‘emergency safety net’, as if Vélez lose their match in Venezuela, UC will qualify even if they lose to Unión.

In third place but still with a chance to win the entire group, Vélez will be looking to make up for their average performance in this year’s Libertadores by sealing their place in the knockout round. Just like the other two sides in the running, they know that a win in their last game guarantees their qualification, and if UC lose their match, Vélez can progress with a draw.

The neutral fans will surely love to see Caracas qualifying for the next round, but one can’t help thinking that if Vélez play to their potential, they will easily brush aside the current group leaders. In the other match, I’d be surprised if UC failed to win against Unión, they are a superior side and Unión will probably be focusing on improving their domestic form now that they are out of the Libertadores.

Predictions: Caracas 1x1 Vélez Sársfield, Universidad Católica 2x0 Unión Española
(with these results, Universidad Católica and Caracas would qualify)

Group 5

Unlike the other seven groups, we have a little bit longer to go in Group 5, as all four sides have two games remaining as opposed to just one. However judging by the excitement and drama we’ve seen so far, the more games the better. In a group with the early tournament favourites Santos, two huge South American sides in Cerro Porteño and Colo Colo, and the tricky Venezuelans Deportivo Táchira, we knew it wasn’t going to be dull, and it certainly hasn’t been.

Santos’ underachieving has come as a surprise, with a squad that can boast the likes of Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Elano, Zé Eduardo and Maikon Leite going forward, they were expected to run away with this group, scoring hatfuls of goals in the process. The reality was very different, they started with a frustrating 0-0 away to Táchira, and it appeared the team began to panic and become preoccupied with the prospect of failure. They then went their first three games without a win, firing their manager in the process.

Last week Santos finally managed to get their first win of the group, a 3-2 victory at home to Colo Colo, but they still managed to do it the hard way. Things were looking rosy for the Peixe as Neymar jinked through the Chilean defence to make it 3-0, but after picking up a comical second yellow card for his celebration, the rest of the Santos team embarked on a path of self-destruction, having Elano and Zé Eduardo sent off and all three suspended for their crucial match next week.

Santos striker Neymar (far right) recieves his red card against Colo Colo (Photo: AFP)

Santos play away from home against Cerro Porteño on April 14th, and they know that they will be eliminated if they lose and Colo Colo subsequently beat Deportivo Táchira at home. With Neymar, Elano and Zé Eduardo suspended, they will have a tough time overcoming a side like Cerro, who can call upon exciting midfielder Juan Manuel Iturbe, and the seemingly unstoppable centre-forward Roberto Nanni. Cerro, currently in first position in the group, will seal their qualification with a win against Santos, and they look very good value to progress.

In the other match this week, Colo Colo will take a huge step toward qualification if they can see off Deportivo Táchira at home. Colo Colo have so far been a team dangerous in attack, but with many gaps in defence, in four games they have managed to score eleven goals, but they are still with a -1 goal difference, conceding a woeful twelve goals in only four games. Colo Colo should be confident in this game though, they won this fixture 4-2 away in Venezuela on matchday two, and they will expect another three points playing at home.

Predictions: Colo Colo 2x1 Deportivo Táchira, Cerro Porteño 1x1 Santos
Santos 3x0 Deportivo Táchira, Colo Colo 0x2 Cerro Porteño
(with these results, Cerro Porteño and Santos will qualify)

Group 6

In Group 6 we have another thrilling last day lined up. Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia are very far back with only one point, but the top three, Internacional, Jaguares and Emelec, are separated by only two points. The final matches will take place on Tuesday 19th, as Jorge Wilstermann take on Jaguares, and Emelec travel to the south of Brazil to face Internacional at their formidable Beira Rio stadium.

Ecuadorian side Emelec are currently sitting in third position, but missed a huge chance to be sitting on top of the group when they were held 0-0 by Jorge Wilstermann last week. To put this result into context, Jorge Wilstermann lost all their first four matches, and they currently play their football in the Bolivian second division. It’s not going to be too easy for them to qualify; they need to beat Internacional away from home, but could also qualify with a draw if Jaguares suffer a surprise defeat against Jorge Wilstermann.

Internacional, the reigning Libertadores champions, haven’t really convinced anyone yet in this tournament, despite their ten points and +9 goal difference. Most of the unrest has come from their own support, and on Friday the board decided to sack their coach Celso Roth, the man who won the tournament with them last year.

Roth’s relationship with the Inter fans has been quite frosty ever since their disappointing World Club Cup performance, losing to African side TP Mazembe. Paulo Roberto Falcão, Internacional and AS Roma legend, will take over on Monday, and the board will be hoping that the appointment of such a fan’s favourite will keep the support happy and get the team through to the next round. Inter go in to their last game at home just needing to avoid defeat, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t manage it.

The other side who are in the running for qualification are the Mexicans Jaguares de Chiapas. A fairly unimpressive yet efficient campaign so far, Jaguares are left with a final game against Jorge Wilstermann and will be highly favoured to win. Jaguares qualify with a win, a draw if Emelec fail to win, and even a loss if Emelec lose to Internacional.

Predictions: Internacional 3x0 Emelec, Jorge Wilstermann 0x2 Jaguares
(with these results, Internacional and Jaguares will qualify)

Group 7

Similar to group two, both of our qualifiers have already been decided, as the irresistible Cruzeiro and Argentinian giants Estudiantes progress to the next phase. The final game is on the 16th, as Guaraní play Deportes Tolima, and the two qualified sides clash in Buenos Aires. You may think that Estudiantes will go into the last game hoping to win the group, but thanks to Cruzeiro’s unbelievable +16 goal difference, Estudiantes would have to win that match by eight goals.

Cruzeiro have undoubtedly been the top performers in the Libertadores this season, their home results were fantastic, a 5-0 win over Estudiantes, 4-0 over Guaraní, and then 6-1 against Deportes Tolima. The Raposa really do have a good chance of going all the way in this year’s tournament, as one can’t really see many teams capable of beating them on current form.

Predictions: Guaraní 1x2 Deportes Tolima, Estudiantes 2x2 Cruzeiro

Group 8

Finally, we come to Group 8, and going in to the last match, one side have already qualified, and the other three are fighting for second place. This was really the perfect group for Libertadores fans, we have the historical greats Peñarol and Independiente, Libertadores stalwarts LDU Quito, and Godoy Cruz, the first team from Mendoza to ever qualify for the Copa Libertadores.

The second qualifier will be determined on Tuesday night, as Peñarol host Independiente, and Godoy Cruz travel to Quito to play LDU.

Peñarol celebrate their qualification to the knockout stages.

Peñarol qualified after beating Godoy Cruz in their last match, and surprisingly they sit in first position despite suffering two heavy defeats away from home, 3-0 versus Independiente and 5-0 against LDU Quito.

LDU play home to Godoy Cruz on Tuesday in Quito, where they famously hold a significant altitude advantage over the majority of their opponents. They only have to avoid defeat, which is something their experienced Libertadores squad should be able to deal with, against Libertadores first-timers Godoy Cruz.

It has been a decent campaign for Godoy Cruz, flying the flag for the Mendoza region of Argentina, being the first team from there to qualify for the Libertadores proper. They have earned seven points so far, with wins at home to LDU and away to fellow Argentines Independiente. La Tomba now have the ultimate Libertadores test if they want to qualify, they have to win in the famous Estadio Casa Blanca.

Independiente, only two points back from the other two, do still have a chance to qualify, but that chance is pretty tiny. El Rojo need LDU and Godoy Cruz to draw, and at the same time they have to defeat Peñarol by eight goals.

Predictions: Peñarol 2x1 Independiente, LDU Quito 3x0 Godoy Cruz
(with these results, Peñarol and LDU will qualify)

The ties for the Copa Libertadores knockout rounds are decided by group form, not by a draw, so these final results will have a big impact on who faces who in the next round. With the predictions I gave, the knockout ties would be as follows:

Junior Barranquilla x Once Caldas
Cruzeiro x Santos
Libertad x Caracas
Internacional x Nacional
Cerro Porteño x LDU Quito
Peñarol x Estudiantes
Universidad Católica x Jaguares
Argentinos Juniors x Gremio

I think you’d agree that those scores throw up some interesting ties, but with several teams very close in terms of their performance, there are so many possibilities. A couple of really interesting ones which could realistically come up, first of all Internacional x Grêmio is a real possibility, two fierce rivals, and would make an amazing Libertadores tie. Possibly the most exciting though is the prospect of Peñarol x Nacional. One of the biggest rivalries in South American football, often regarded as one of the biggest rivalries in the world, it’s a very distinct possibility if you consider the records of the two sides.