Tuesday night sees Arsenal de Sarandí get the ball rolling in the first match of the 2012 Copa Libertadores, which is being played as this post goes online because I hadn’t realised it kicked off so early in the evening. I’m still in summer holiday mode, you know. Aside from Arsenal in the qualifiers, Argentina will be represented in the group stage by the two winners of the domestic league in 2011 – Vélez Sarsfield and Boca Juniors – and by the two next-best teams in Argentina during 2011, Lanús and Godoy Cruz. It’s a welcome return to the continent’s top table for Boca, and Godoy Cruz’s second appearance in a row, having never qualified for the Libertadores until last year’s edition. Here, I attempt to give a brief rundown of each side’s chances.
Vélez Sarsfield (qualified as champions of the 2011 Torneo Clausura)
Clearly the best side in Argentina six months ago, but somewhat underwhelming during the Apertura just gone, due in part to losing key forward Santiago Silva to Fiorentina on the eve of the transfer window closing. After having to get by without him, Vélez have now replaced him with Mauro Óbolo, the striker who impressed for Arsenal de Sarandí, and have had an unexpected boost with Juan Manuel Martínez deciding to stay for another six months. The only reason Martínez was still in Argentina was that he became a father during the Apertura and wanted his child to be born here, so most expected him to move to Europe this month.
Martínez adds a mobility to the attack which should work well alongside Óbolo’s more physical presence, and Mexico international Guillermo Franco showed during the last campaign that he’s a good addition to the club’s attack as well. Federico Insúa, the attacking midfielder who’s had previous spells with Boca Juniors and Independiente among others, has been signed from Bursaspor to add creativity to an already exciting team.
I think Vélez have the squad depth, and their manager Ricardo Gareca agrees: ‘We have a great squad and we want to breed a winning mentality,’ he told the press last week. They’ll be expected by their fans to challenge for the league title as well, which will be an extra pressure; in the short championship era, no Argentine side has won the Libertadores and the Clausura at the same time, and this year there’s the added pressure of a Copa Argentina run as well. I think Vélez have it in them to get to the quarter-finals at least, though.
Boca Juniors (qualified as champions of the 2011 Torneo Apertura)
Returning to the Copa Libertadores after a few years’ absence, Boca will be eager to break the recent run of bad results by Argentine sides in the competition and put their stamp on the trophy again after dominating it in the early years of this century. If they can win it, they’ll join Independiente on seven wins. They’re so serious about challenging that they’ve bought former Vélez striker Santiago Silva from Fiorentina solely for the competition – he can’t play at all domestically for them for the rest of this season, having already been registered with two clubs in 2011-12.
At the time of writing, Boca’s preparations for the new term are being overshadowed by the all-encompassing behemoth that is the superclásico, even though it’s only coming in the form of a pre-season friendly in Chaco (and then another in Mendoza). Boca don’t start in the Copa until Valentine’s Day though, so they’ve got time to get over that hangover. They’re in a group with Fluminense of Brazil and Zamora of Venezuela, as well as the winners of Arsenal’s playoff against Huancayo, of Peru. Several of their players have Libertadores experience and one of them, Juan Román Riquelme, has bestrode the continent like a colossus in the past, being the competition’s best player by a mile when Boca last won it in 2007. Manager Julio César Falcioni doesn’t mess around and know how to get the best from his players, they have a balanced squad and a determined mentality. They’ll be challenged by fixture congestion as much as Vélez will, and might find it hard to adjust having been out for a few years, but should qualify from their group and will also have the incentive of knowing that lifting the trophy would be a spectacular way of overshadowing River Plate if their great rivals do manage to win promotion back to the Primera at the end of the season. I think they can make the semi-finals at least, and wouldn’t be surprised if they went all the way.
Arsenal de Sarandí (qualified as best not-otherwise-qualified Argentine side in the 2011 Copa Sudamericana)
Arsenal shouldn’t really be here. Any sensible FA would have given their fifth qualification place to Independiente, who were the side next down the Copa qualification table from Lanús and Godoy Cruz. The AFA, however, decided to give it to the side who performed best in the Copa Sudamericana, and when that proved to be already-qualified Vélez, Arsenal, who’d been knocked out one round earlier, got the place by default. This is their second appearance in the Copa; they were in it in 2008 as well, and of course won the 2007 Copa Sudamericana.
They’ve lost Mauro Óbolo to Vélez (he’d also been a target for Boca Juniors), but have brought in forward Jorge Córdoba to replace him, and have also added Colombian defender Carlos Carbonero, though he joined the team too late to play a part tonight against Huancayo. If Arsenal get through their playoff, they’ll go into Boca’s group, with Fluminense and Zamora. They’re not too experienced in the Libertadores and Flu and Boca will be the clear favourites from that group, with Arsenal also needing to watch themselves in the domestic relegation table. As such I don’t fancy them to get beyond the group stage.
Lanús qualified in third place in the qualification table, and over the whole of 2011 they only won six points fewer than Vélez Sarsfield, and seven fewer than Boca, even though the Apertura was largely frustrating for them. They’ve made two main signings: Santiago Salcedo, the forward who left for Argentinos Juniors amid accusations of a bad attitude, has returned to the club and scored twice in a pre-season friendly with San Telmo, and Vélez defender Gastón Díaz has also arrived. The good news is that the core of last year’s team has remained stable. In particular, Mauro Camoranesi, Diego Valeri, César Carranza, Mariano Pavone and Silvio Romero are all still with the Granate, although it must be admitted, even by as big a fan of his as I am, that Romero needs to take some steps forward during 2012 if he’s to really live up to the kind of promise I think he has.
Lanús are in Group 2 along with Emelec of Ecuador, Olimpia of Paraguay and the winners of the playoff between Real Potosí (Bolivia) and Flamengo (Brazil). That’s unlikely to be entirely easy going, especially with two of their first three matches away from home, and whether the squad is deep enough to compete on two fronts is also questionable; Lanús’ first-choice midfield is superb but beyond that, their youngsters are a little wet behind the ears. I think they can squeeze through the group stage but after that it’ll be tougher going. They might just manage to make the quarter-finals though.
Godoy Cruz are in the Copa for the second year in a row, having been eliminated in the groups last year. That year, they were in a group with eventual finalists Peñarol and Liga de Quito, so to an extent were unlucky with their draw. This year they’re in Group 8 along with Universidad de Chile – deserved winners of the Copa Sudamericana last month – Atlético Nacional of Colombia, and the winners of the playoff between Peñarol and Caracas. That looks tricky again, but just a little more negotiable than last year’s group, and the squad should be better prepared for the challenge this time. Captain Diego Villar is staying with the side in spite of interest from San Lorenzo and Racing, though midfielder Israel Damonte has left for Nacional of Uruguay on a free transfer, and there’s not yet been much movement otherwise; 21-year-old Federico Lértora has joined the midfield from second division Ferro Carril Oeste.
I like Godoy a lot as a club, and hope they have enough to get through the group stage, but a lot will depend on how they negotiate their second and third matches, both away trips (to Olimpia and Emelec, respectively). A group stage exit isn’t unlikely unless they can improve somewhat on their performances during the last month-and-a-bit of the Torneo Apertura, when they should have secured qualification for this competition long before the last day of the season.
You can follow the latest news from the selección and Argentina’s foreign legion of players, as well as the domestic championship, River Plate’s first second division campaign in over a century and the ever entertaining/tragic/infuriating capers of Julio Grondona & chums direct from Buenos Aires with HEGS on Twitter. If you’ve not signed up yet you can do so here. You can also join the official HEGS Facebook group, to keep up to date with the latest posts on the blog and discuss things with other fans. You’ll find it here. And remember to bookmark Hand Of Pod, our Argentine football podcast, or if you prefer you can subscribe to it on iTunes here.