Tonight, the 2013 edition of the Copa Libertadores de América gets started in earnest; the qualifying rounds are now over, and the group stage gets underway. Four of the five Argentine sides involved will play matches in the competition this week, with Tigre’s group stage debut held over to next week due to their final 2012 Torneo Inicial fixture against Quilmes tomorrow evening. Boca Juniors, Arsenal de Sarandí, Vélez Sarsfield and Newell’s Old Boys join Tigre in flying the Argentine flag in South America’s biggest competition. Here, I’ll take a quick look at each of their groups.
Last season’s beaten finalists Boca Juniors are in group 1, having qualified by virtue of their standing in the 2012 calendar year table. They’re alongside Uruguayan giants Nacional – current Uruguayan champions under former River Plate playmaker Marcelo Gallardo, though he left at the end of the season to be replaced by Gustavo Díaz. Nacional reached the semi-finals of the Copa in 2009, and have won it three times, most recently in 1988; this is their seventeenth consecutive participation in the Libertadores, a competition record.
The other group stage opponents for Boca are Barcelona de Guayaquil, of Ecuador, and Mexican side Toluca, against whom Boca open their campaign in La Bombonera on Wednesday night. Toluca have featured just once before this year, reaching the round of sixteen in 2007. Barcelona – named after their more famous Spanish namesakes – are one of Ecuador’s biggest clubs, and have been runners-up in the Libertadores twice, in 1990 when they lost to Paraguayan side Olimpia, and in 1998 when they lost to Vasco da Gama, of Brazil.
This group looks likely to be between Boca and Nacional for the group winners’ spot, though Barcelona have the potential to throw some spanners in the works. To that end the key meetings could be in the third and fourth rounds of matches, when Boca first host Nacional, and then visit them in Montevideo, a week apart.
Group 2 is where Tigre have landed, having negotiated a qualifying tie against Anzoátegui of Venezuela after qualifying by virtue of their performance in the 2012 Copa Sudamericana, where they reached their first ever continental final. As qualifiers, Tigre are seeded bottom, in a group with Sporting Cristal of Peru, Palmeiras of Brazil, and Libertad of Paraguay. Between them, this group has just one Copa Libertadores win – Palmeiras’ 1999 triumph. Cristal were beaten finalists in 1997 and Libertad’s best performance was a semi-final place way back in 1977. This could turn out to be a very open group – Palmeiras may have the big reputation, but were poor in 2012 and when the Brazilian league commences this year, they’ll be playing it in the second division (they qualified by winning the Copa de Brasil). Libertad ought to qualify, in my opinion, but any of the other three could easily be the ones to follow them in. Tigre’s task won’t be easy, but as they showed during the Sudamericana last year, they’re capable of surprising people.
2012 Torneo Clausura winners Arsenal de Sarandí are in group 3, alongside two Brazilian sides, São Paulo and Atlético Mineiro, and magnificently-named Bolivian outfit The Strongest. Arsenal’s Libertadores campaign begins on Thursday night in the heights of La Paz, and whilst I doubt The Strongest will get too many points in their away games, the other three sides will need to do well against them in their visits to Bolivia. An early loss could hurt Arsenal a lot, because I don’t think they’ve got the quality to make up too much lost ground on three-times winners São Paulo or Ronaldinho-inspired Atlético. Even if Arsenal do get a result on Thursday, I think it’ll be the two Brazilian sides qualifying from this group; Arsenal’s play has fallen off a cliff since their Clausura win last year.
Vélez Sarsfield, the current champions of Argentina, are in group 4. They’re joined by Ecuadorian league 2012 runners-up Emelec, Uruguayan giants (and five-times Libertadores winners) Peñarol, and Chilean side Deportes Iquique, who only returned to professionalism seven years ago after years playing as an amateur or semi-pro outfit, and have been back in the Chilean top flight since 2008. Iquique came through a qualifier against León of Mexico on penalties, and won’t be expected to pull up any trees in this group. Emelec could cause some problems to the two frontrunners – starting tonight, when Vélez visit them in Guayaquil – but ultimately Vélez and Peñarol will be expecting to qualify from this group.
That only leaves Newell’s Old Boys, runners-up in the Copa in 1988 and 1992, the latter under the managership of current Athletic Bilbao boss Marcelo Bielsa. Newell’s qualified thanks to a strong showing throughout 2012 under Bielsa’s protégé Gerardo Martino, and are in a group with Chilean giants Universidad de Chile, Olimpia of Paraguay – Libertadores winners in 1979, 1990 and 2002) and Venezuelan minnows Club Deportivo Lara, who were founded as recently as 2006. Lara might be new, but they won last season’s Venezuelan title by a statistically record-breaking margin, losing just one match in the whole season. Newell’s have a thin squad, and might find the demands of the Libertadores and Torneo Final too much, but they start at home to Olimpia on Thursday evening before visiting Lara next week, and if they can gets some early points on the board ahead of back-to-back home and away meetings with U de Chile, they could look good to qualify.