Gregory Sica
Wednesday February 10th, 2010

If one game on Tuesday night is any indication, the 51st edition of the Copa Libertadores -- South America's Champions League -- will continue to provide drama and excitement fitting of a premier continental tournament. In one of the most dramatic matchups in recent memory, Universidad Católica ensured its place in the group stage of the competition after a penalty-shootout victory over Colón de Santa Fe in Santiago, Chile.

In a game that had absolutely everything, the Chileans came from behind to win in the dying minutes, forcing a 5-5 aggregate deadlock over the two legs and sending the match to the shootout. The game was an early demonstration of the level of quality that will be on display right until the final of the competition on Aug. 18 (the Libertadores will take a break for the World Cup and will resume at its conclusion).

Even though the final preliminary qualifier has yet to be resolved (the winner between Newell's Old Boys and Emelec on Wednesday will determine all 34 participants), the group stage of the competition kicked off Tuesday. While 2004 champion Once Caldas of Colombia won at Nacional of Paraguay, Uruguayan side Cerro (which is located in one of Montevideo's most impoverished suburbs) claimed the three points at home against Ecuadorian champion Deportivo Quito. But the biggest upset was in Argentina, where Paraguayan outfit Libertad proved far superior to Lanús with a comfortable win.

Such a thrilling start suggests that we'll be in for one of the most exhilarating competitions in decades, even though Argentina's two most successful clubs -- Boca Juniors and River Plate -- failed to qualify this year. Their absence will likely be filled in terms of quality soccer by the five Brazilian representatives. With Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos on its roster, Corinthians will be one of the teams to beat. Meanwhile, Brazil's most popular club, Flamengo, will be looking for the inspiration of Adriano as it seeks to win the Libertadores for the first time in almost 30 years.

Here's a brief rundown of what we can expect from the 2010 Copa Libertadores:

Deportivo Italia may have been the first Venezuelan club to participate in the Libertadores back in '64, but it probably won't escape the group phase this time. The Caracas-based team was drawn into Group 7 along with a trio of former champions: Vélez Sarsfield, Colo-Colo and Cruzeiro. All three are loaded with talent, and the group is likely to go right down to the wire.

This year, only the top finisher in each group is guaranteed a place in the knockout stages, which means every match brings urgency (the eight group winners qualify, as do the six best-positioned runner-up teams).

While Vélez is looking very solid, '09 finalist Cruzeiro is the most dangerous team in this group. The Brazilians thumped Real Potosí of Bolivia 7-0 last week to clinch a place in the group stage. With seven different players getting on the score sheet (including Joffre Guerrón, who was on the '08 title-winning LDU de Quito team), Cruzeiro clearly displayed its wealth of attacking options.

In keeping with the traditional rivalries between Argentine and Brazilian clubs, this year's group stage has plenty to offer as far as games with finals-like atmosphere. And one such grudge match comes early when Vélez takes on Cruzeiro in Buenos Aires on Wednesday. The two former Libertadores champions are at the top of their games and are expected to challenge for the title.

Another intriguing clash will be the one between Nacional and Banfield -- whenever the champions of Uruguay and Argentina lock horns, plenty is at stake. And similarly, both clubs are riding waves: Nacional made the semis of last year's tournament, only to fall to eventual champion Estudiantes de La Plata, and will be desperate to avenge that defeat against another Argentine side. Banfield, meanwhile, is coming of the first league title in its 113-year history and will be keen to prove it's no fluke.

Three-time winner São Paulo (which adds a returning Cicinho on loan from Roma) is also looking for revenge in the group stage. When the Tricolor Paulista clashes with Once Caldas, it will recall the painful memories from the '04 Libertadores when it was surprisingly knocked out at the semifinal stage by the Colombians. Once Caldas gained confidence from the victory and went on to win the competition for the first time that year after beating Boca in the final. Could Once stun the Brazilians again?

Finally, with its penalty-shootout victory over Colón, Universidad Católica ensured itself a place in Group 8, setting up a showdown with fierce rival Universidad de Chile. The "Clásico Universitario" is the second-biggest derby in Chile, and with four wins and three draws from nine matches, Católica has a favorable record over its rival in the Libertadores.

All eyes will be on Corinthians and its cathedral of superstars, namely universal celebrities Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. The Timão is hoping to celebrate its centenary year in style, and what better way to do this than by winning the Libertadores for the first time. Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos will attract most of the headlines, but Corinthians has several other exciting players, including Iarley, Dentinho and Matías Defederico.

Corinthians boasts the most intimidating squad of the tournament, but head coach Mano Menezes is more than aware this could play against it. Its three group opponents -- Cerro Porteño, Independiente Medellín and Racing -- will try to defend their goal as best as possible, which could complicate Corinthians' path toward the knockout stage. Menezes has plenty of material with which to work, but will need to fine-tune his side to ensure things run smoothly. But if Ronaldo & Co. work their magic, Corinthians will be a force to be reckoned with.

On a personal note, Ronaldo will be hoping a good showing in the Libertadores will earn him a place in Brazil's squad in what would be for him a fifth successive World Cup. On Tuesday, Brazil boss Dunga told Terra News, "It isn't the end of Ronaldo. He is playing and training, [and] those who are playing have chances" of making Brazil's 23-man team. But with the level of competition for places in Brazil's attack, Ronaldo must be sure he does two main things while with Corinthians: that he stays healthy and scores plenty of goals.

Banfield ended a 113-year wait for a title when it won the Argentine Apertura championship for the first time last year. El Taladro stunned its opponents with its exciting attacking approach and is expected to translate the good work into the Libertadores. But in its third appearance, Banfield will be unable to count on the services of the Apertura Championship's leading scorer, Santiago Silva (the prolific Uruguayan decided to return to Vélez over a pay dispute). This is a major blow for the team, but not all is lost as Banfield is still a compact unit. If the Southern Buenos Aires outfit manages to make it out of a difficult Group 6, it should fancy its chances of reaching the decisive stages of the tournament.

The fact that Boca and River aren't in the tournament this year narrows the contenders down to just a few clubs. Argentina's biggest threat comes from Vélez and Estudiantes, but it's unlikely that any of its other representatives will challenge for the title. Brazil, on the other hand, can lean on five of its strongest clubs: Corinthians, Flamengo, Internacional, São Paulo and Cruzeiro. All five are expected to advance to the knockout stage, and have enough depth to stake a claim for the title.

From the other nine nations, the teams with the best chances of fighting for the honors are Nacional (Uruguay), Colo-Colo (Chile), Libertad (Paraguay) and possibly Once Caldas (Colombia). As Once proved in '04, it's possible for the lesser teams to break through the Argentine and Brazilian domination of the tournament.

No Mexican club has ever won the Libertadores before, but that could certainly change this year. Chivas de Guadalajara and San Luis were both granted automatic spots in the knockout stage as compensation for being expelled from the round of 16 stage of the competition last year (due to the swine-flu epidemic in the country). Fellow Mexican outfits Monterrey and Monarcas de Morelia will begin from scratch, and although placed in complicated groups, will have plenty to prove.

The Libertadores has traditionally been a platform for South America's finest players to showcase their skills in an attempt to attract lucrative contracts from high-spending European clubs. Even if greater attention will be focused on capturing talent on display at this summer's World Cup, Europe will still keep a close eye on events in South America.

As is generally the case every year, there's plenty of talent from which to choose. Some of Europe's major clubs will be calling for the return of the Flamengo trio of Adriano, Kléberson and Vágner Love. Estudiantes captain Juan Sebastián Verón will also be tempted to return to Europe, but that's unlikely to happen (Verón's intention is to retire at Estudiantes).

Other ambitious clubs will be looking to discover fresh talent, with some players to keep an eye out for being Kléber (Cruzeiro), Nicolás Otamendi (Vélez), Ezequiel Miralles (Colo-Colo), Sebastián Coates (Nacional), Defederico (Corinthians), Sebastián Blanco (Lanús), Pablo Velázquez (Libertad), Sebastián Fernández (Banfield) and Hernanes and Miranda (São Paulo).

Meanwhile, outstanding Argentine-based strikers Mauro Boselli and Joaquín Boghossian are expected to move to England at the conclusion of the competition. Both players will also be fighting for outside chances of participating in the World Cup, for Argentina and Uruguay, respectively.

With the absence of Argentina's top clubs, it looks as if the Brazilian teams are by far the strongest of the competition. Flamengo lifted the Libertadores for the only time in '81, but will rate its chances of winning the title for a second time very highly. Since ending a 17-year drought for its fifth Brazilian Championship last year, Flamengo's confidence has skyrocketed. As well as having the advantage of playing in front of hostile crowds of close to 100,000 at the famed Maracanã stadium, the Rio de Janeiro club seems to have a squad that is well-equipped for confronting such a demanding competition. If the Adriano-Vágner Love attacking partnership clicks, Flamengo could be unstoppable.

Flamengo's biggest competition is also likely to come from Brazil, with São Paulo, Corinthians, Internacional and Cruzeiro all looking equally strong. However, the fact that two teams from the same nation will have to eliminate each other in the decisive stages limits the chances of two Brazilian teams meeting in the final.

Argentina's finest would have to be Vélez, but defending champion Estudiantes isn't too far behind. If Banfield is able to produce the kind of form it demonstrated last year, it could also be a serious title contender. Still, the two most likely teams to meet in the final are Flamengo and Vélez. Both teams have shown a great deal of consistency over the last few months, and are destined to return to international glory.

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