The 50th edition of South America's Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, is set for a thrilling climax, with the return legs of both semifinals scheduled for this week. With Nacional of Uruguay taking on Argentina's Estudiantes de La Plata and an all-Brazilian affair of Grêmio up against Cruzeiro, fans will be treated to two matches embroidered with history and still wide open after the first-leg results. Between them, the four semifinalists have won the competition 10 times (Cruzeiro was the last, 12 years ago).
With a place in the finals in touching distance, all four clubs will be desperate to produce their best soccer, and it's in these kinds of instances when stars are born. South America continues to produce players of the highest caliber, and in this edition of the Libertadores, several players have emerged as possible stars of the future, while others have cemented their status as world-class players.
Due to the wealth of talent on display, many will sign lucrative deals with top European clubs at the tournament's conclusion, if they have not already. It's no secret: The Copa Libertadores is the perfect platform for the top players of the region to showcase their skills in an attempt to cash in with the big boys of world soccer. Here are the top 10 performers in this year's edition of the Libertadores:
A serious contender to be player of the tournament, Kléber has been key to Cruzeiro's impressive campaign. Having ended the the Mineiro state tournament (which Cruzeiro won earlier in the year) as the leading marksman, Kléber has managed to transmit that success into the Copa. Not only has the striker found the back of the net four times, but he has been the club's main inspiration in the attack. His performances have quickly made him a fan favorite, and he will be hoping to repay the club's fans with the Libertadores title.
Kléber, who won the Ukrainian Super League twice with Dynamo Kiev before returning to Brazil, has attracted envious glances from several top European clubs, including Liverpool. But first, he wants to put Cruzeiro into the history books with a third Copa title triumph. His Cruzeiro teammate Ramires has been equally impressive, and will return to the side after helping Brazil win the Confederations Cup for a third time.
Since returning to his beloved Estudiantes after 10 years in Europe, Verón has been in incredible form. The South American Footballer of The Year continues to be one of the most intelligent playmakers in the game, and he has been instrumental in Estudiantes' amazing Libertadores run. Los Pincharratas haven't lifted South America's biggest prize in 39 years, but have a great shot of winning their fourth title now that they're only a step away from reaching the finals.
The 34-year-old Verón has shown he still has plenty to offer to Estudiantes, or any other club for that matter, and it was his quick free-kick that led to Diego Galván's winner in the first leg against Nacional last week. Unfortunately for Estudiantes, "La Brujita" was injured later on in the match and will have to watch the second leg in Montevideo from the dugout. Will Estudiantes be able to cope without their leader?
Only hours away from completing a big-money transfer to European champion Barcelona, Keirrison promises to take European soccer by storm. Last season, he finished in a three-way tie as the top scorer of the Brazilian Championship with 21 goals and he has scored six times in the Libertadores. "K9" was the standout of a Palmeiras side that didn't live up to expectations in the tournament and was sent crashing out by Nacional in the quarterfinals.
With its elimination, the pressure built -- in particular coach VanderleiLuxemburgo. On his blog, the former Brazil boss threatened to not play Keirrison in protest to his transfer to Barcelona, which led to his immediate firing. Keirrison will hope to experience a memorable season with Barça, as it could well be worth a 2010 World Cup place with the Seleção.
Lodeiro is the most exciting talent to have emerged from Uruguay in recent years, and his acceleration, combined with dribbling skills, have earned him comparisons with Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi. The Nacional attacker is world-class and, with four goals to his name in the Copa, he has proven to be the difference for Nacional. At only 20 years of age, a bright future awaits him, but Lodeiro will be hoping to help Nacional lift what would be a fourth Libertadores title before packing his bags for Europe. Some possible destinations include Barcelona (where he could team up with Messi) and Liverpool.
Dubbed the "Uruguayan Maicon" because of his ability to get forward in the attack (like the famed Inter Milan fullback), Pintos is one of the most sought-after defenders in South America. He was outstanding as Defensor reached the quarterfinals of the Copa, and was particularly impressive as the Uruguayan underdogs eliminated continental heavyweight Boca Juniors. Although he has attracted interest from a couple of Italian clubs, his future lies with either Boca or River Plate of Argentina, two massive clubs which would provide him with plenty of experience before heading to Europe.
With five of Estudiantes' 15 goals in the Libertadores, Boselli has proven to be his team's biggest threat. The former Boca striker has reached his top form with Estudiantes, and his smart positioning and goal-scoring prowess has been much of the reason why his team is still in the hunt for the title. Having learned from the likes of Martín Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio while at Boca, Boselli has managed to make a name for himself at Estudiantes.
Coates only recently emerged on the continental scene, but the center back already promises to be a star of the future. At 6-foot-5, it's no wonder the 19-year-old is almost impossible to beat in the air, which is much of the reason why Nacional has conceded the fewest amount of goals in the tournament. Coates is also strong in dead-ball situations and found the back of the net with a powerful header in the group phase against Nacional of Paraguay.
His potential hasn't gone unnoticed, and he has been targeted by several foreign clubs, including Juventus. The Italian club has sent scouts to Uruguay to observe the player in action, and is expected to make an offer for him at the conclusion of the Copa.
Three-time Libertadores champion São Paulo didn't perform up to its usual high standards this year, but the tournament reinforced the status of its latest gem. The midfielder is perhaps the biggest star in South America, and his undisputed quality means it is just a matter of time before he becomes a household name in Europe.
Having played a key role as São Paulo clinched a fourth successive Brazilian Championship last season, Hernanes was rewarded as Brazilian Footballer of the Year. He was on the verge of completing a high-profile transfer to Barcelona earlier in the year, but São Paulo's Libertadores commitment was the priority. With time to reflect on a tournament that could have gone better, Hernanes may be forced to part ways with São Paulo. The Brazilians would surely cash in on the 24-year-old.
With few opportunities at Barcelona and in Russia, López's career has been rejuvenated at Grêmio. The tall, blonde striker finally found a team that knows how to take full advantage of his heading ability -- three of his four goals in the tournament came off his noggin. The former River Plate striker has adapted to Brazilian soccer quickly, but had he converted an easy opportunity against Cruzeiro last week, his team would sit in a better position heading into the return leg of the semifinals in Porto Alegre.
What reduces the chances of a return to Europe, however, is that Maxi also makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Not only is he married to Argentine bombshell Wanda Nara (who has achieved some Paris Hilton-like infamy for a sex tape), but last week he was accused of racially abusing Cruzeiro midfielder Elicarlos (López denies the charges).
Boca may have been eliminated in the quarterfinals, but nevertheless Palacio was able to produce the kind of soccer that has characterized him over the years. After a couple of frustrating seasons, the injury-prone winger was able to show that he is still a class act and scored five times in the tournament.
For years, Palacio has been on the agenda of several top European clubs, but only until now has the high-paid attacker considered a move abroad. Palacio has said he's comfortable at Boca, but knows that a good season in Spain, Italy or England would provide him with greater possibilities of participating in the World Cup with Argentina for a second time. Such a delayed transfer could mean that Palacio could end up at a second-tier European club like Deportivo La Coruña, Real Betis or Panathinaikos instead of a power like Juventus, Barcelona or Arsenal. His future is likely to be decided in the coming weeks.