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Copa Libertadores 2018 Preview

Copa Libertadores 2018 Preview

The group stages of the most exciting international club competition in the world begin this month, as South America’s best compete in the Copa Libertadores.

WFI’s South American Football Show team have clubbed together to write a comprehensive guide to accompany their preview podcast which you can listen to below. Each team is profiled, key players are picked out, and potential stars of the future from each team are highlighted.



Group 1

Grêmio (BRA)

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


Grêmio’s quest to retain their title was handed a big boost after the draw placed them in what was unquestionably the easiest of the eight Libertadores groups.

The side from Porto Alegre have managed to hang on to a number of key contributors from last year, and while they lack a clinical goal scoring forward, the holders have every other piece necessary to defend their title.

Pedro Geromel and Walter Kannemann will anchor the defence ahead of talented goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe. In the midfield, it will be Barcelona target Arthur who headlines things once healthy, but new man Alisson, who was signed from Cruzeiro, and the veteran Maicon will play a big role as well.

Luan, one of the most talented players in South America headlines the attack, but with the inconsistent Lucas Barrios no longer in the fold, Grêmio lack the assertive number 9 they may need to repeat as champions.

Key Man: Hernane Brocador

Grêmio have all the pieces necessary to defend their title, except that of a consistent attacking threat. They spent most of December and January searching for a number 9, and after a few false starts, settled on Hernane.

Though Tricolor gaúcho are reportedly in the market for another striker, it looks as though Hernane could be the man to lead the line, at least initially. The 31 year old scored a total of 36 goals in 2013 for Flamengo, earning him a move to Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia

He returned to Brazil in 2015, first with Sport Recife then with Bahia, and scored 11 goals during the 2016 Série B for Bahia. If Hernane can find his 2013 form for Grêmio, they just might be among the favorites again.

Young Talent: Arthur

Linked with Barcelona and compared to Iniesta, the diminutive 21 year old was one of the standouts of the 2017 Libertadores, and he stands to be a protagonist in 2018 as well. A fantastic passer, Arthur is Grêmio’s critical link between defence and attack. Despite logging just 2 professional appearances before 2017, Arthur has put himself in position to potentially make the Brazilian World Cup squad, and a strong start to 2018 could be enough to seal the deal.


Cerro Porteño (PAR)

By Roberto Rojas – @RobertoRojas97


The most successful team in the Copa Libertadores to never win it, Cerro Porteño face, yet again, another challenge.

Following the successful run of finishing champions of the 2017 Clausura under manager Leonel Alvarez, the team will be without the Colombian following his departure just days before the start of the 2018 season for El Ciclon.

Nevertheless, under new and experienced manager Luis Zubeldía, will it finally be the year that the side based in Barrio Obrero kill their ghosts and lift South America’s biggest prize yet?

With the re-inauguration of their new stadium, the biggest one in the entire country, they have been pitted in a group with reigning champions Gremio, Uruguayan side Defensor Sporting and Venezuelan side Monagas.

The people’s team of Paraguay will hope to get out of the group stage in an effort to jump that semifinal hoop that they have historically failed to clear . With a team that has been together for quite some time, failure is not an option.

Key Man: Diego Churín

With 11 goals in the successful 2017 Clausura that made him the top goalscorer in the league, the Argentine brings power, strength and an eye for goal. He is the main striker and perhaps the key attacking player for this Cerro side following the departure of winger Josue Colman to Orlando City.

Young Talent: Alfio Oviedo

At 22 years old, Oviedo is ready to explode onto the scene for Zubeldía’s team after joining them last year after a sensational 2017 Apertura with former club Independiente Campo Grande. Blessed with speed, many clubs around the world have been interested in him and he’ll be looking to help Churín up front as they try to pose some problems for their rivals in the Copa Libertadores.


Defensor Sporting (URU) 

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


True to form, the Uruguayan runners-up have a youthful feel about their side, leaning heavily on their impressive academy.

There is a worry they might struggle to find the back of the net though; Maxi Gomez, whose goals were a big part of their Apertura win, left for Celta Vigo in the European summer and the future of Gonzalo Carneiro is still unclear after his transfer to Grêmio fell through at the last minute.

La Viola will most likely face a battle with Cerro Porteño for second place in the group, with reigning champions Grêmio expected to finish top.

Defensor are certainly capable of springing a surprise, as their run to the semi-finals in 2014 proved.  Will it be a case of riding a wave of youthful exuberance or will inexperience get the better of them?

Key Man: Ayrton Cougo

Despite being only 21, Cougo has already established himself as a key player in the side.  Named after the great Brazilian Formula One driver, Cougo is half-Brazilian and really announced himself with a brilliant 2017.

He scored six times and laid on seven assists in 27 matches and was often the player that really made Defensor tick.  A versatile midfielder who can play centrally or on the left, Cougo has even filled in at left back before and Celta Vigo have been keen to bring him to Galicia to link up with Gomez again.

Despite his propensity to pick up bookings, Cougo and his set pieces will be important if Defensor are able to get out of the group.

Young Talent: Juan Manuel Boselli

Just 18 and the youngest member of Uruguay’s star-studded U20 World Cup squad last year, Boselli is one of the most exciting players in a squad full of young prospects.  An attacking midfielder or support forward with good dribbling skills and a good eye for a pass, he has begun to get regular game time in Defensor’s first team and this year could be a breakthrough one for him.

Also, worth a mention are defensive midfielder Carlos Benavidez (19) and precocious forward Facundo Millan (17).


Monagas (VEN)

By Nick Carter – @RedWineVzla


Monagas finished 2017 as the Grand Champions of Venezuela beating Deportivo Lara in the final.  However, due to the somewhat complex nature of the Venezuelan football calendar they finished 6th in the Apertura, 5th in the Clausura and they were 13 points off leaders Carabobo in the accumulated table.

The history books will say they were the best team in the league in 2017, although the facts don’t quite back that up.  This shouldn’t take away from their achievements though, as when they really needed results they pulled them out of the bag.

The main strength of Monagas in 2017 was their attacking flair.  Playing a very fluid 4-3-3 under coach Jhonny Ferreira, the front trident of Luis ‘Cariaco’ González, Dany Febles and Anthony Blondell were devastatingly effective.

The understanding with which they shared on the pitch, combined with intelligent movement and blistering pace saw them put opponents to the sword.

The defenders enjoy bringing the ball out of the defence and starting attacking movements although they do then have the tendency to be caught out on the counter.

Unfortunately for Monagas, the winter transfer window was a tough one as a number of key players have left, including Febles and top scorer Blondell.  On the plus side, they have been boosted by the return of Cariaco González after a 6-month jaunt in the MLS and the signing of Carlos Suárez in the centre of midfield looks to be a massive upgrade.

They haven’t enjoyed a good start to 2018 and lost 3 consecutive matches, having been in leading positions in 2 of them.  The main issue is that they haven’t reinforced defensively and they no longer have the explosiveness of Anthony Blondell to dig them out of holes.

Key Player: Luis “Cariaco” González

A product of the Caracas youth system, González has always been seen as one of those players with a lot of promise but without much application.  Initially, he came through alongside Rómulo Otero and he was left to carry the can a little after Otero’s departure.

He struggled with the expectations and wasn’t able to hit the heights expected.  He joined Monagas for the 2016 Clausura following spells at La Guaira and Mineros and he looks like he is comfortable now and enjoying his football.

A key reference point to the side, he has the pace, skill and trickery to turn opposing defences inside out.  He spent the final part of 2017 on loan to FC Dallas, but he barely got on the pitch.  Cariaco is an enigma, however I think that he may have just found his home with Monagas.

Young Talent: Yohanner García

García, a native of Barinas, made his debut with Monagas in 2017 and quickly looked at home.  Capable of playing anywhere down the right flank, his favoured position is in the attacking trio.  Pacey and good on the ball, he needs to try and add some goals to his game.


Group 2

Atlético Nacional (COL)

By Simon Edwards – @SimonEdwardsSAF


When Atlético Nacional lifted the 2016 Copa Libertadores trophy following a superb and largely dominant run to the final, everything seemed to be in place for domestic dominance and continental contention.

Without overspending the club had built a squad filled with internationals, had invested in facilities, established a global reputation and were getting excellent attendances.

Over the following year the fans patience and goodwill has been severely tested. Seventeen first team players have left, and the club made a €47.2million profit in the year following their Libertadores win; enough to smash the Colombian transfer record ten times over.

The club made no high profile signings and manager Juan Manuel Lillo failed to inspire tactically with his rapidly depleting resources.

Atlético Nacional qualified by winning the first Colombian championship of the year but have been in decline since amid growing fan frustration.

Argentine Jorge Almirón, a 2017 Copa Libertadores finalist with Lanus, has looked to bring in some familiar Colombian names and combine them with Argentine players he knows well.

Argentine signings include goalkeeper Fernando Monetti, defender Diego Braghieri, fullback Raphael Delgado and midfielder Gonzalo Castellani. From Colombia, he has signed international fullbacks Camilo Zuniga and Helibelton Palacios.

Diminutive attacking midfielder Vladimir Hernandez is the most exciting addition, a player full of class and creativity, he will pull the strings in midfield alongside Macnelly Torres.

Atlético Nacional are very much a work-in-progress, while the quality and depth of the squad has once again improved, the side still lacks cohesion.

Almirón has a sizable task ahead, but if he can build some of the spirit he fostered at Lanus, Nacional could once again be contenders in 2018.

Key Player: Dayro Moreno

Dayro Moreno has had an excellent goalscoring record throughout his career and has become increasingly more efficient in front of goal in recent years.

Since 2011, he has scored 47 in 95 games for Tijuana, 29 in 45 for Millonarios and 25 in 37 since joining Atlético Nacional.

He has plenty of top level experience and he was a key part of an unfancied Once Caldas side as they defied the odds, lifting the Libertadores in 2004.

While Dayro has smart movement, good technique and has grown into a very clinical, composed finisher, he can drift out of games at times.

He doesn’t provide the focal point for attacks, as was the case with Miguel Borja in 2016, which can limit Nacional on the break.

That said, his record speaks for itself and his goals will be key for the Colombians.

Young Talent: Carlos Cuesta

Since making his debut in 2016, Carlos Cuesta has won the Colombian Cup, the Colombian league, the Copa Libertadores, the Recopa Sudamericana and reached the final of the Copa Sudamericana – he is still only 18 years old.

An incredibly mature, composed and intelligent defender, he slipped seamlessly into the Nacional defence and has looked very comfortable since. He has the pace to cover Alexis Henriquez and is incredibly tidy on the ball.


Bolívar (BOL)

By Frederick Clayton – @FrederickJC1


Bolívar are making their 28th appearance in the Copa Libertadores after a rare year off in 2017.

They’ve started the domestic season strongly, registering 5-1 victories against Real Potosí and Jorge Wilstermann, whilst Argentine Marcos Alonso has managed four goals in four.

The diminutive Jorge Flores, one of Bolivia’s brightest prospects, has also continued in the same vain of form that made him a favourite amongst Bolívar fans in last year’s title winning season.

With Colo-Colo, Atlético Nacional and Delfín sharing group 2, there’s no reason to despair – there are certainly more difficult draws. As always in the Copa Libertadores, Bolívar will be looking to their lung-bursting location as a 12th man.

Having won just 2 away games in the competition since 2004, Bolívar need to take advantage when at home.

Key man: Juan Miguel Callejón

Spanish playmaker Juan Miguel Callejón has returned from a two-year financially-motivated stint in the middle-east. One of the few Europeans currently in the Bolivian league, the player who scored 73 goals in 164 games from midfield has been welcomed back with open arms.

At 32 years old, Callejón is entering the twilight of his career and may struggle to play a full 90 against the biggest sides.

However, he has already managed two goals in four league matches, and offers invaluable Copa Libertadores experience: Callejón and his teammates narrowly missed out on the final in 2014 after being knocked out in the semis by eventual winners San Lorenzo.

Young Talent: Hernán Luis Rodriguez

Straight from Bolívar’s youth set-up, Hernán Luis Rodriguez has cemented his place in the first team after a seven-game trial period last season.

The defender has enjoyed marauding through lesser defences in the league this season with great success, but Bolívar’s fierce rivals brought the youngster back down to earth recently. The full back’s inexperience was exposed as Bolívar lost to The Strongest in the league.

There’s no doubt that manager Vinicius Eutropio sees Rodriguez as a mainstay this season, and if he can add discipline to his game then he will certainly be an asset in this year’s Copa.


Colo-Colo (CHI)

By Adam Brandon – @AdamBrandon84


Fresh from winning their 32nd league title in December, Colo-Colo should make a greater mark on the competition this year than they have done over the past two decades. Their record since 1997 has been bafflingly poor, and with each passing year that they don’t have a run in the competition – the pressure intensifies.

They must avoid the mistake of underestimating their Ecuadorian opponents in their group as they did two years ago when eventual finalists Independiente del Valle edged them out.

In their attack minded 3-4-1-2 formation, this Colo-Colo side should be one of the most entertaining sides in the competition. How far they go probably depends on the quality of their defending. Expect them to dominate matches, especially at home. However, they always seem to give their opponents hope and at this level that is something that could cost them dear.

Early signs in 2018 suggest they struggle against a high press and their ageing first XI could be tested late on in matches too. They have conceded late in three games so far in the league, but it has only proved costly once to date.

Key Man: Esteban Paredes

It is difficult to look past striker Esteban Paredes who continues to score goals at the ripe old age of 37. 2018 may see the Colo-Colo legend become the top Chilean scorer in both the history of the Copa Libertadores and Chilean Primera Division.

He has started the season in sublime form and is leading the goalscoring charts once again with 6 goals in 4 matches, having only started in two of them. In this side he gets plenty of quality service with the likes of fellow Chilean internationals Jaime Valdes and Jorge Valdivia pulling the strings in midfield.

New signing Carlos Carmona, fresh from a decent spell in MLS with Atlanta United, may also have a prominent part to play if Los Albos are to buck their disappointing recent trend in this competition. It is hoped he will provide the team with more composure and control, leaning on his experience of top class European and international football.

Young Talent: Nicolás Orellana

Nicolás Orellana is one of the few young players likely to get significant game time for Colo-Colo in this year’s Libertadores. After impressing on loan at San Marcos de Arica and Everton Viña del Mar in the past two seasons, the forward has finally been given a chance at his parent club.

Given the fact that the first XI is jammed pack of experienced pros, Orellana’s hard running up top will give this side some much needed youthful enthusiasm. However the 22-year-old needs to work on his finishing and decision making to make the next step.

Another youngster to keep an eye on is the versatile Gabriel Suazo, who found his home on the left flank last season and impressed – contributing in both attack and defence. He has already made his debut for Chile, so this is an important year in the development of the 20-year-old.


Delfin (ECU)

By Xavier Zavala – @Zavxav


“Delfin de Manta” was one of the biggest surprises in South America last season, because of their successful narrow and compact style that lead to vertical and direct counterattacks.

With strong and tall center backs together with intense and physical midfielders, Delfin were able to defend their way through to the final of the Ecuadorian tournament in which they were finally edged out by Emelec.

“Los Auriazules” will face the difficult challenge of showing that the team’s previous season was not a fluke and that they are able to keep up that level of performance up in continental tournaments.

Key Player: Pedro Ortiz

Several teams have tried to lure Pedro Ortiz away from Delfin, but he remains the key player for the Cuadro Cetaceo. Delfin play a very unique style, which would be impossible to perform successfully without the safe pair of hands this goalkeeper provides.

His value cannot be measured only in wonderful saves and impressive interventions, but also lies in his vocal leadership from the back. With departures of defensive leaders of last season’s team like Silva and Chancellor, he needs to take further steps forward to lead the team.

Young Talent: Luis Canga

Despite his young age, this tall center back has already played in the Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana, Ecuadorian Serie A and even for the National Team.

When he surfaced as a young talent in Liga de Quito, his value as a future starter rose significantly. However, like most young defensive players, he has had to go through the grinding development of learning how to read games and spaces better in order to perform consistently at a high level.

With the aforementioned departure of key defensive players, he will need to step up and prove his worth and fulfill the potential he exhibited at Liga de Quito.


Group 3

Peñarol (URU)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


The Uruguayan champions finished 2017 in imperious form, winning the Clausura by nine points and with a goal difference of +32.

They are looking stronger than last year’s embarrassing outfit and have added a wealth of experience with Maxi Rodríguez, Cristian Rodríguez and a rejuvenated Walter Gargano in midfield.

Lucas Viatri is a good target man at this level, Cristian Palacios is in great goal-scoring form and Ecuadorian winger Fidel Martinez can add some flair.

The omens look good but, somewhat surprisingly, Peñarol have history against them.  They have failed to get out of the group stages in their last five attempts and the last time they got to the knock-out stages was in 2011 when they eventually reached the final.

The group looks kinder than years gone by, but Libertad and The Strongest will be tricky away ties and they actually finished below Atlético Tucuman last year – so it’s not a given that it’ll be plain sailing for Los Carboneros.

Key Man: Cristian Rodríguez

Nicknamed Cebolla (the Onion), the Uruguayan international may be past his best at 32 years old but since his move from Independiente he has been in sensational form back at the club where it all began.

He scored a career best of 15 times in 29 appearances from midfield last year and his big game experience will be key if Peñarol are to progress.  Cebolla will be the inspiration the Peñarol fans look to as they attempt to buck the trend of their poor Libertadores campaigns of late.

Young Talent: Agustin Canobbio

Peñarol have quite an ageing squad so there aren’t too many young players likely to feature, especially after the sale of Diego Rossi to LA FC.  With that in mind, Canobbio is probably the standout prospect, having joined from Fenix in the transfer window.  An U20 international, Canobbio is hard-working and industrious as a winger or wide forward and will no doubt feature for Peñarol in the Libertadores.


Libertad (PAR)

By Roberto Rojas – @RobertoRojas97


Following a semifinal run in the Copa Sudamericana last year, Club Libertad will be ready to one-up themselves and hope to cause yet another surprise in a major South American club tournament.

Under the guidance of new manager and former goalkeeper Aldo Bobadilla, Los Gumarelos come into this edition of the Copa Libertadores with a blend of youth and experience.

Paraguayan internationals such as Paulo Da Silva, Salustiano Candia, Antolín Alcaraz, Cristian Riveros, Santiago Salcedo and Oscar Cardozo will be keen to avenge their semifinal loss to eventual champions Independiente and pose themselves as a threat on the big stage.

They will be pitted in a tough group with Uruguayan powerhouse Peñarol, Bolivian side The Strongest and the Argentines Atlético Tucuman. Bobadilla’s men will be hoping to get out of the group stage and hope to make a case to become only the second Paraguayan team ever to win the Copa Libertadores.

Key Man: Oscar Cardozo

After his European odyssey, Cardozo brings experience and an eye for goal that makes him one of the key strikers in all of South America. Despite lacking pace, he is still a player that brings a goal threat and leadership. He carries a lot of respect among his peers in the squad, both young and old.

Young Talent: Angel Lucena

Following the departure of 20-year-old Jesus Medina to New York City FC, it leaves the 23-year-old midfielder as a player to watch when Libertad play. Blessed with great passing and creativity, the control that he possesses in the midfield is something that many scouts will be keeping an eye out for when he plays.


The Strongest (BOL)

By Frederick Clayton – @FrederickJC1


The Strongest have been blessed with one of the kindest groups in the Copa Libertadores, drawing Libertad, Penarol and Atlético Tucuman. They will certainly be optimistic in the knowledge that, with their atmospheric advantage, three home wins are certainly on the cards. Peñarol present the biggest obstacle to the Bolivian side as they look to reach the second round for just the third time in their history having never progressed past that stage.

Buoyed by a recent 2-0 win over fellow altitude junkies Bolívar, The Strongest will hope that result can kickstart their season as they have struggled for goals so far this term highlighted by the fact their top scorer is Ecuadorian defender Edison Carcelén.

Key Man: Edis Ibargüen.

 As so often in Bolivian football, the star man is rarely Bolivian. Edis Ibargüen has been brought in this season from Patriotas Boyacá, and The Strongest will be hoping the attacking midfielder can add to the goal scoring form he showed in Colombia.

This season, The Strongest have made signings in defence, midfield and attack to make up the margins that saw them pipped to the title by Bolívar last season. Ibargüen has been thrown into the starting lineup and has already managed a goal and an assist.

The experience of Luis Fernando Martelli at centre-half will also be key if the side from La Paz are to avoid being demolished when travelling the continent.

Young Talent: Rodrigo Vargas

Having lost goal scorer Matias Alonso to River Plate, The Strongest have brought in Rodrigo Vargas from Petrolero Yacuiba. The 23-year-old scored 16 goals in last season’s Primera Division, and may even lead the line as The Strongest’s more experienced goal scorers continue to struggle.

On the whole, Tigre have opted for experience so far this season, though they handed a debut to 18-year-old Henry Vaca, who has impressed for the national U20 side.

The ageless Pablo Escobar also deserves a mention, bringing experience from his time with Olimpia Asuncíon in the late 90s.


Atlético Tucuman (ARG)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


Tucuman were the darlings of the early stages of last year’s competition, capturing the hearts of the neutrals after their mad-cap away trip to El Nacional in Ecuador.

Almost missing the match due to a delayed flight, they didn’t even have time to bring their kit so were made to play in the Argentinian U20 kits that were still in the city thanks to the U20 South American Youth Championships taking place in the country at the time.

Despite these obstacles, they still managed to pull off an improbable away victory at altitude.  With their vibrant home support, they will be a welcome addition in only their second ever appearance at this level.

El Decano may have lost the Copa Argentina final to River but qualified nevertheless as Los Millonarios had already secured a place in the Libertadores via the league position.

The signings of Javier Toledo and Andrés Lamas have added some extra experience and under Ricardo Zielinksi they should be an organised outfit.

Tucuman won’t be expected to qualify from the group but they haven’t been handed the worst draw imaginable and if they continue their strong home form, they might sneak out of the group.

Given that they were only in the 2nd division a couple of years ago, the fans’ expectations won’t be too high and they’ll be mainly enjoying the ride.

Key Man: Luis PulgaRodriguez

Something of a cult hero, the 33-year-old talisman has spent virtually his entire career at his hometown club and scored over 100 goals for the club.

Dubbed the “Messi of the Nacional B” for many years, he’s a diminutive figure but has great technique and is the beating heart of the side.

He was joint top scorer in the Copa Sudamericana and is the club’s leading scorer in the Superliga this season with five goals so still has plenty to contribute.

Young Talent: Augusto Batalla

The young goalkeeper was highly regarded after stellar performances for the Argentina U17s and U20s but his star has fallen somewhat after some high profile errors for his parent club River.

Now on loan, away from the spotlight and pressure of Buenos Aires, the 21-year-old will hope to prove why Real Madrid were linked with him in the past.

A good shot stopper with great reflexes, Batalla has made a decent start to his Tucuman career so far and will probably have a fair bit to do.  Honourary mention to young prospect 17-year-old Tomas Cuello.


Group 4

River Plate (ARG)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


Last year’s Argentinian runners-up have been pretty poor for several months now and go into the tournament with a bit of a cloud hanging over them.

They failed to properly replace Driussi and Alario in the summer and then crashed out of the Copa Libertadores semi-finals in dramatic fashion and have struggled for form since then.

Looking to address those issues, Los Millonarios have lived up to their name and splashed the cash on some big name signings in goalkeeper Franco Armani, Colombian playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero, and burly centre forward Lucas Pratto to bolster their squad.

Results haven’t picked up yet since the restart of the Superliga season and some players are still finding their way back to full fitness, but you get the feeling that there is enough in the tank to improve as they grow into the tournament.

Gallardo may not have his best iteration of River but they are proven cup specialists and will still be expected to get out of the group in spite of their ongoing deficiencies, with the games against Flamengo a particular highlight for the neutral.

Key Man: Juan Fernando Quintero

You could make an argument for any of River’s new signings being the key man but, while Armani and Pratto certainly seem necessary upgrades in key positions, Quintero is arguably the most talented player on the continent when at his best and could be the difference between a good tournament and a great tournament.

A mercurial playmaker with a wand of a left foot and capable of seeing and executing passes that others couldn’t dream of – on his day he is unplayable.

Questions remain over his weight and how focused he is, but on paper he seems a brilliant addition to a side that aspire to play attractive, free-flowing football.

Young Talent: Lucas Martinez Quarta

River are always a club with exciting young prospects on the books and ball-playing centre back Lucas Martinez Quarta looks one of the better defenders coming out of Argentina in recent years.

The 21-year-old had a fantastic start to 2017 but his progress was scuppered by a failed drugs ban in last year’s Libertadores.  River struggled in defence in his absence so his return is timely and hopefully the six months off won’t leave him too out of match fitness.

Honourary mentions for the young Uruguayan duo of left back Marcelo Saracchi and attacking midfielder Nicolás de la Cruz.


Emelec (ECU)

By Xavier Zavala – @Zavxav


“El Bombillo” find themselves in an extremely competitive group for the second year in a row. Emelec were able to go through to the knockout stage last year after a very dramatic final round of group matches. Ecuador hopes they are able to pull through another surprising performance in the group of death in this edition.

The “blue ballet” has a great track over the last 8 years in the Ecuadorian Serie A where they have won 4 championships and ended up runners-up on 4 occasions. However, their performances in the Libertadores have been inconsistent.

Last season Emelec had a difficult beginning of the season in which they experimented with different lineups and formations until the strong resurgence of Jorge Guagua and the signing of Juan Carlos “Hormiguita” Paredes brought balance to the team.

Emelec hit their stride at the end of the season with the arrival of Fernando Luna and were able to claim their 14th Ecuadorian championship title. This season, after the very harmful departure of key player Fernando Gaibor to Independiente, they will rely on their depth to find balance in the team.

The exciting arrival of Jefferson Montero on the eve of the competition is set to increase the pressure on the double pivot to hold the balance of the team. However, adding Montero to the already powerful attack trio of Preciado, Luna & Angulo should make rivals think twice about giving this team any space down the wings. 

Montero gives Emelec a serious chance of going far in this Libertadores, because at full strength the Ecuadorian international gives the side from Guayaquil more tactical flexibility and greater attacking depth.

Key Player: Osbaldo “Yaya” Lastra

Osbaldo Lastra has been very important ever since he arrived to the club back in 2013. Bringing much needed balance and grit to the midfield. However, this season he might be facing his most difficult one yet. The aforementioned departed Fernando Gaibor was his best partner in midfield, so Lastra will be looking to strike up a new relationship in the middle of the park.

Osbaldo Lastra is the key player for this team because he allows his teammates to bring the best out of their playing style and covers for his teammates’ most glaring weaknesses.

His presence covers for the defence’s lack of pace, as well as allowing attacking midfielders like Luna and Preciado to focus on creating chances for Angulo up front. Lastra’s contribution will go unnoticed to most fans, but his value should not be ignored.

Young Talent: Brayan “Boogeyman” Angulo

Most fans got to know him last year with his great performances especially versus Independiente Medellin. The Ecuador international has a very rare combination of power, speed and skilled finishing, he just needs more playing time and opportunity to showcase these attributes more often.

This season, Emelec fans were hoping Club President Nehme would surprise them with a star striker signing. However, after “El Cuco” blasted 2 goals through El Nacional during the first game of this season, those wishes were silenced and the “Bombillo” fans are ready to finally witness his breakout year in Ecuador as well as in Libertadores.


Flamengo (BRA) 

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


The most popular team in Brazil, Flamengo’s shock group stage exit in 2017 came as a surprise to the club and its multitude of fans. Since crashing out of last year’s Libertadores, Flamengo have changed managers twice, and fallen agonizingly short of taking the Copa Sul-Americana.

Now under the command of Paulo Cesar Carpegiani, who guided Mengão to the 1981 Libertadores title, Flamengo will have to handle a couple of critical absences if they’re to make it out of a challenging group.

First, Flamengo will be without their Peruvian talisman Paolo Guerrero, who will serve a doping ban ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Flamengo have signed Henrique Dourado from rivals Fluminense to help fill that void, and while Ceifador, as Dourado’s known, isn’t as talented as Guerrero, he should be able to do enough to fill the void until June.

Secondly, Flamengo will be forced to play their first two Libertadores home matches behind closed doors as punishment for crowd trouble surrounding last year’s Sul-Americana final. Critically, Flamengo will be without the support of a pulsating Maracanã for their crucial home opener against River Plate.

Key Man: Everton Ribeiro

Every player who puts on a Flamengo shirt is subject to intense pressure, and it’s no different for Everton Ribeiro, who was brought in from Al Alhy last June. Ribeiro has floated in and out of matches all too often for Flamengo since joining them last June, and while Flamengo have the talent to compensate for an off night from the 28 year old, they are undoubtedly a better side when he’s on.

If Everton Ribeiro and others in the midfield and attack can provide them with a more consistent set of performances, Flamengo could find themselves in the business end of this year’s Libertadores.

Young Talent: Vinícius Júnior

Flamengo have more talented young players than any other side in all of South America, but it’s the 45 million Euro man Vinícius Júnior who headlines the bunch. With his 18th birthday coming in July, if all goes well the much hyped youngster could be off to Real Madrid following the group stage of this Libertadores.

New manager Paulo Cesar Carpegiani has given Flamengo’s youngsters their shot, meaning you should see plenty of not just Vinícius Júnior, but also Flamengo’s other talented youngsters this Libertadores.


Santa Fe (COL)

By Simon Edwards – @SimonEdwardsSAF


While they are not the most attractive or creative team, Santa Fe continue to remain a force in Colombian domestic football and a tricky adversary in continental competitions.

Built around a solid core and with a strong focus on counter-attacking football, the side is well suited to dealing with tricky away ties and will frustrate more talented opposition at home.

They will need to rely on defensive discipline and consistency to resist technically superior Brazilian and Argentine opposition in their group, something which has been a little lapse at times; conceding two very sloppy goals against a poor Tachira side is a concern.

If they can hold things together at the back, they should be able to steal a couple of surprise results with their extremely pacy and direct counter.

Plata and Pajoy on the wings are not the most subtle of operators, but they have pace to burn and will be particularly dangerous away from homes against sides lulled into a false sense of security.

Morelo through the middle has been in excellent goalscoring form and will look to find space in the box as the ball is cut back from wide.

It may not be pretty, but Santa Fe won’t make it easy for any opponents and with plenty of pace on the flanks, they are well set up to spring a surprise or two.

Key Player: Anderson Plata

Anderson Plata is going to be extremely important as Santa Fe look to turn defence into attack. The 27 year old winger has already showed in qualifying that he can absolutely destroy a fullback on the outside with his pace and then cut inside to create a chance, or tee one up for the clinical Wilson Morelo.

Incredibly pacy and athletic with a lot of confidence and a nice touch, Plata is perfectly suited to provide Santa Fe with a dangerous outlet on the right wing.

Young Talent: Sebastian Salazar

While Santa Fe look predominantly to more experienced players to implement their organised, professional tactical approach, there are a few younger players who will look to make an impact.

Salazar is a player who has been rated highly for a number of years and he now needs to bring some consistency to his game and nail down a starting position. With a good eye for a pass on top of the prerequisite defensive discipline the 22-year-old could make the difference for the Bogota side.


Group 5

Cruzeiro (BRA)

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


Back in the Copa Libertadores for the first time since 2015, Cruzeiro return to the competition with one of the most talented squads in all of South America.

The 2017 Copa do Brasil champions added Fred, one of the best goalscorers in Brazil, to an already talented attacking group during the recent transfer window. Edílson, a talented right back with an outside chance of making Brazil’s World Cup squad, was added from 2017 Libertadores champions Grêmio.

Cruzeiro rely on a mixture of youth, 20 year old centre back Murilo, and experience, 37 year old goalkeeper Fábio, at the back. With a group of attackers featuring Thiago Neves, Rafael Sóbis and Giorgian De Arrascaeta, a trio matched by few other sides in all of South America.

The club from Belo Horizonte are among the favorites in this competition, but will be tested by a talented Racing side in the group stage.

Key Man: Fred

Yes, that one.

Rightly or wrongly the scapegoat of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup disaster, Fred is back home with Cruzeiro, the side he played for in 2004 and 2005.

Regardless of his standing at the international level, Fred is one of the most consistent goalscorers in South America and has been for quite some time.

After moving over from crosstown rivals Atlético Mineiro in January, Fred will be tasked with finishing off the host of chances created by Cruzeiro’s plethora of talented midfielders and wingers.

Young Talent: Giorgian de Arrascaeta

After injury kept him out of portions of the start of the 2017 season, the 23 year old Uruguayan returned to the lineup for Cruzeiro to close out 2017 and made a massive impact during Rapossa’s run in the Copa do Brasil.

Talented on the ball, and able to ping a pass with the best of them, De Arrascaeta should be in the Uruguay squad in Russia, and may even start in midfield for Oscar Tabarez. De Arrascaeta could be on the move after the World Cup, especially if he shines in Russia – until then he will be one to keep an eye on during this Libertadores.


Universidad de Chile (CHI)

By Adam Brandon – @AdamBrandon84


In the first half of 2017, it appeared that manager Guillermo Angel Hoyos was starting to build something special at La U. Praised for bringing the squad together again following the fracturious spell of Sebastian Beccacece, Hoyos’ La U snatched the 2017 Clausura title away from fierce rivals Colo-Colo playing some decent possession based attacking football.

However, the last few months have seen various frailties exposed with the unreliable and temperamental Chilean international defender Gonzalo Jara an easy target for opponents and an over-reliance on the ageing David Pizarro to inspire. The loss of striker Felipe Mora to Cruz Azul also saw them lose a reliable poacher up top, although ex-Hearts and Atalanta striker Mauricio Pinilla is back at the club where it all started for him.

Having been placed in one of the most difficult groups, it would be somewhat of a surprise if Universidad de Chile made it to the knockout stages of this competition. They may be good enough to finish third however and qualify for the Sudamericana.

Unfortunately, the stark likelihood is that they will probably be on the end of some heavy defeats given the quality of their opponents in this group. On paper all three sides look primed to exploit La U’s defensive weaknesses.

Key Man: Yeferson Soteldo 

La U’s major summer (South American summer) signing has had a slow start since joining Chile’s second biggest club. Impressive, match-winning performances at Huachipato last season earned the Venezuelan number 10 the big move inside Chile.

On his day he is a majestic dribbler with eagle-eyed vision – especially when given space in which to operate. However, he does sometimes struggle to make an impact in games where his side are not the protagonists as he’ll drift out of position looking for the ball leaving himself with too much to do.

This tournament presents Soteldo with the chance to prove he can perform on a more consistent basis at a high level and also be the difference in high profile games. Better discipline will be key.

Young Talent: Nicolás Guerra

Nico Guerra burst onto the scene with a sumptuous strike in the Copa Chile quarter-finals last year. The next day saw Chilean media explode with excitement that they had discovered the next big thing. He has been talked about for years in Chile for his goalscoring exploits at all youth levels.

His form at the end of last season was inconsistent, but he got off to a flyer in 2018. Early signs suggest he has plenty of skill, pace and movement and with some end product to match. A potent mix that may just see him become the breakout star Chilean football desperately needs.


Racing Club (ARG)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


Racing qualified for the Libertadores by sneaking into 4th place in the league thanks to a good second half to the season under Diego Cocca.  However, results have been pretty poor since and Cocca has been replaced by Eduardo “Chacho” Coudet, who played some nice football with Rosario Central a couple of years back.

It’s still early days to see how the Coudet era will go but it feels like the positivity has returned to Avellaneda, especially with the added bonus of tricky winger Ricky Centurion returning home.

Drawn alongside Cruzeiro, Universidad de Chile and Vasco, it’s arguably the hardest group to predict in the Libertadores but Racing are good enough to qualify for the knock-out stages.

La Academia have plenty of goals in Lisandro Lopez and Lautaro Martinez with an experienced squad around them and an attacking style that should suit them well.  It might be a bit of a roller coaster but it will be well worth keeping a firm eye on Racing.

Key Man: Lautaro Martinez  

At just 20 years old, it was tempting to file Martinez in the young prospect category.  However, that doesn’t do justice as to how integral he is to Racing already, with seven goals in ten games so far this season.

Already one of the best strikers in the league, Martinez impressed for the Argentina U20s last year and went on to enjoy a breakthrough campaign with Racing before picking up a metatarsal injury.  Fully fit and firing on all cylinders, the young bull of a forward will be vital for Racing before his move to Inter Milan this summer.

Young Talent: Matias Zaracho

Flying under the radar with all the attention on Martinez, 19-year-old Zaracho has been quietly impressing for Racing this season.

Another member of last year’s Argentina U20 squad, Zaracho is a dynamic midfield all-rounder; he can dribble, pass well of either foot and also boasts good decision-making.

One of the surprising aspects of his game, especially given his lack of height, is his heading ability. There aren’t a great deal of midfielders of his ilk in the Argentinian game so he is definitely an interesting prospect to keep tabs on. 


Vasco da Gama (BRA)

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


On paper one of the weaker Brazilian sides in this year’s Libertadores, Vasco da Gama stormed through the early stages of the  playoff rounds, but needed to survive on penalties against the Jorge Wilstermann. Survive they did, and now they slot into a tantalizing group.

Much like Botafogo and Atlético Paranaense last year, Vasco are collectively more than the sum of their parts, but their fluid attacking movement has allowed them to, at points, score chances at will in the playoff rounds.

While the competition level will now step up in the group stage, Vasco have what it takes to sneak out of this challenging group and make some noise in the knockout rounds. If they’re to do that, then their defence, which has as of yet been untested in this competition, will play a massive role.

Goalkeeper Martín Silva, who will head to Russia as one of Uruguay’s reserve keepers, can make a big save or two, but it’ll be the central defenders who will need to step up and take away chances, something they struggled with against Jorge Wilstermann in the final playoff round. 

Key Man: Yago Pikachu

Look, there are a lot of players that could potentially be highlighted, but you know I had to go for the wonderfully named right back given the chance.

Great name aside, Pikachu has been a highlight during the playoff round, bombing forward from his right back position to contribute to Vasco’s dangerous attack. He and the youngster Paulinho form quite the tandem on the right side assisting a rotating cast of talented attackers in creating chances and goals.

Pikachu isn’t afraid to chip in defensively either, and his contributions on that end, particularly against the dangerous attackers present on the other sides in this group, will be central to Vasco’s success in the group stage.

Young Talent: Paulinho

While Flamengo’s Vínicius Júnior gets all the headlines, Paulinho might just be the most talented youngster in Rio right now. At just 17 years old, Paulinho has already attracted the interest of some of the European giants, and a strong Libertadores could seal a big money move ahead of his 18th birthday, which comes in July.

Vasco’s attack has been impressive in the playoff round, and Paulinho’s movement, particularly when coupled with that of his fellow attackers, has been a big reason why they’ve been so successful. Pacey, athletic, and smart, it’s clear to see why Paulinho has drawn the eyes of the European giants, and easy to see why he might be the breakout star of this year’s Libertadores.


Group 6

Santos (BRA)

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


After a 3rd place finish in the Brasileirão last year, Santos enter this year’s Copa Libertadores with a new manager and lacking some of the familiar faces from last year.

Gone are Lucas Lima and Ricardo Oliveira, and while Santos have failed to properly replace Lucas Lima, they’ve brought back a familiar face to lead the line: Gabigol.

The veteran Renato, now 38, captains the squad and will serve as the necessary stability in the defensive midfield. Santos lack a proper playmaking midfielder, meaning their wing play will be critical if they’re to be successful.

While Jonathan Copete is rather one-dimensional, his direct play should trouble weaker defences, and if Vitor Bueno can return to form after a long term injury sidelined him at the end of last year, Santos can dream about a deep run in the Libertadores.

Key Man: Gabriel Barbosa

After a disastrous 18 month spell in Europe with both Inter Milan and Benfica, Gabigol is back in Brazil, and the early returns are quite positive. The enigmatic forward scored in each of his first 3 matches back, and will look to continue that form when Santos make their Libertadores debut.

A fiery competitor who’s never played a Libertadores match, on any night Gabigol can score a brace or get sent off, chances are in this Libertadores he’ll do both. 

Young Talent: Arthur Gomes

Of the 7 Brazilian teams in this year’s Libertadores, Santos might possess the best stable of young talent currently involved with the first team squad. The 19 year old Arthur Gomes made his first team debut in 2016, and has featured in all 8 of Santos’ matches so far in 2018.

A dangerous attacking threat, Arthur Gomes will most likely start matches on the bench behind the more experienced Eduardo Sasha, but his 25 to 30 minute second half appearances could change matches in Santos’ favour, especially in what could be a difficult group stage.


Estudiantes (ARG) 

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


Estudiantes qualified after their 3rd place finish in the league, in what was a solid but rarely spectacular campaign.  Their success was based on their strong defensive partnership of Schunke and Desabato with experienced keeper Andujar behind and they have continued in a similar fashion this season.

However, they’ve struggled for goals since the departure of Viatri, Toledo and Auzqui.  Mariano Pavone and Gaston Fernandez have served the club well in the past but are past their best and there doesn’t look like there are enough options up front for them to go deep in the competition.

Perhaps the biggest question mark lies over Lucas Bernardi who, despite getting off to a reasonable start in La Plata, has failed to impress at any of his previous clubs and is not proven at this level yet.  Qualification from the group is definitely achievable but it will probably be hard fought against the likes of Santos and Nacional.

Key Man: Mariano Andujar

Veteran goalkeeper Andujar was a member of the side that won the Libertadores in 2009 and has been an ever-present since his return from Italy a couple of years ago.

A steady pair of hands and often the national team’s third choice goalkeeper, Andujar provides invaluable experience and gives the defenders in front of him security and confidence.

Estudiantes’ foundations are based on their rock solid defence and with goals harder to come by, they’ll need Andujar to be at his best.

Young Talent: Juan Ferney Otero

The 22-year-old Colombian forward could be the answer to Estudiantes’ goal-scoring woes and has been in great form this season with 5 goals and 2 assists in 11 league games.

Otero has the pace, directness and power to worry defences and loves a dribble or shot from distance.  He also epitomises the hard-working style of Estudiantes and will run the channels and drag defenders out wide.  Not always the most consistent, he nevertheless provides a much needed spark for Estudiantes. 


Real Garcilaso (PER)

By Frederick Clayton – @FrederickJC1


Real Garcilaso will be celebrating their 10th birthday next year, having been set up by a group of students in 2009.

Yet this is their third appearance already in the Copa, and remarkably they reached the quarter-finals in 2013, albeit with a favourable group.

This year, things are much harder to predict as Garcilaso have drawn one of the most unpredictable groups – Nacional, Estudiantes and Santos. Home and away form is always so crucial in the Copa Libertadores, and Garcilaso have the edge, sitting 2800m above altitude in the city of Cusco.

Last season Garcilaso finished as runners up in Peru’s Primera Division, and they have started this season well despite some difficult fixtures. After the play-off exits of Universitario and Melgar, Garcilaso will want to give a better account of their nation in the Copa – a tournament in which Peruvian sides so often underperform.

Key Man: Alfredo Ramúa

Garcilaso were busy in the transfer window, and it’ll be down to club legend and Argentinian playmaker Ramúa to help gel the new look midfield. Ramúa re-joined the Peruvian outfit in 2017 after a title-winning stint at Sporting Crystal, and Garcilaso have been left wondering how they coped without him.

His return has seen Garcilaso back at the heights they reached during his last stint at the club – he was a part of the side that finished runners up in 2012s torneo and reached the Copa Libertadores quarter-finals in 2013.

Fans will be hoping that his experience and goals will help the club domestically and in the Copa. An honourable mention also goes to Garcilaso’s weighty new striker Diego Mayora, whose size should cause issues for even the most experienced defences.

He’s managed two goals already in the Peruvian primera, and is likely to lead the line when Garcilaso go up against Estudiantes in March.

Young Talent: Rudy Palomino

Palomino’s impressive performances on the left of midfield for Cienciano last season earned him a call up to the Peruvian U20s side, while Real Garcilaso stood up to take notice of the young talent.

Having already made 42 professional appearances as teenager, Palomino is player with plenty of league experience before his 20th birthday. Garcilaso signed him in December, and although he is unlikely to squeeze his way into the first team this year, there’s no doubt he is being earmarked as one for the future.

Garcilaso will be looking to give rest to and eventually replace the ageing Tragodara and Landauri in midfield. As Copa Libertadores fixtures clog up the calendar, expect to see more and more of the youngster.


Nacional (URU)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


Nacional had to make it through two qualifying rounds just to get to the group stage, displaying all their traditional mettle and guile in the process.

Not exactly the easiest on the eye, the Uruguayans are nevertheless an experienced and organised unit who are tough as old boots. Three one-nil wins tells its own story and no-one will fancy facing them.

A quick browse through their team quickly highlights the strength and depth they possess. Esteban Conde is a reliable pair of hands in goal who has already come up with some big saves, while veterans Jorge Fucile, Alvaro González, Gonzalo Bergessio and Sebastian Fernández have plenty of know-how.  But there is some creativity in there too, with Luis Aguir, Carlos de la Pena and Tabaré Viúdez looking to provide the extra spark.

It may not be pretty and they may not always finish the match with eleven men on the pitch but El Bolso are an effective and well-drilled collective who shouldn’t be underestimated.

Key Man: Diego Polenta

In a team that values the collective over the individual it’s hard to pick out a star man. However, in captain Diego Polenta they have a player whose performances may well end up defining how far they end up progressing.

The uncompromising defender is clearly one of the most talented players in the squad but his off-season has been plagued with questions over his discipline and transfer speculation that seems to have turned his head.

Young boss Alexander Medina faces a tough call but the hot-headed Polenta seems a risk worth taking and his inclusion at left back in the second leg against Banfield seemed to improve the defence.

If he can keep his cool and perform at his best, Nacional stand a much better chance of progressing but a moment of madness could derail their campaign.

Young Talent: Christian Oliva

Though most of the squad is made up of old heads, there are some decent youth prospects coming through at Nacional.  Agustín Rogel, Matias Viña and Guzmán Corujo are all promising defenders, Facundo Waller is a solid addition in midfield and 17-year-old Juan Manuel Sanabria looks a future star.

However, it is Christian Oliva who gets the nod.  The 21-year-old midfielder has seemingly come from nowhere to grab a place in the centre of midfield alongside Santiago Romero and has impressed in the early stages of the competition so far.

Always showing for the ball, Oliva can get stuck in and do the dirty work as well as contributing further up the field – in short, a perfect fit for the Nacional midfield battle.


Group 7

Corinthians (BRA)

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


The 2017 Brasilerião champions, Corinthians won the title by starting hot, and watching as each and every one of their primary competitors folded down the stretch. That’s not to say Timão weren’t good, but they certainly were not an overpowering champion.

Manager Fábio Carille had his side playing solid, disciplined, defensive football, and that’s something they’ll look to continue in this Libertadores. But two of Corinthians’ key pieces have departed, left back Guilherme Arana has moved on to Sevilla, while their talisman Jô has departed for Japan, where he may not be in the international spotlight, but will be swimming in the cash.

So far, Corinthians has struggled to replace those two, with left back Juninho Capixaba looking in over his head, and Colin Kazim-Richards struggling to take the same chances that led to goals from Jô last year.

On top of that, Timão have a history of Libertadores disappointments since their 2012 title, a history they’ll be looking to shake. Corinthians have what it takes to get out of a tricky group, but it’s hard to see this team, as currently constructed, making a deep Libertadores run.

Key Man: Rodriguinho

The talented midfielder has been in incredible form of late, and was key to Corinthians’ 2-0 win against Palmeiras recently. Rodriguinho is a dangerous playmaker who can dribble through defences or play balls past them. If he can create the type of chances that Timão’s strikers can finish off, then 2018 could be a successful Libertadores for the side.

Young Talent: Juninho Capixaba:

Highly rated when brought to Timão from Bahia this January, Juninho Capixaba has found himself in over his head so far in 2018.

A talented player who seems to have hit a bad run of form at the worst possible time, the 20-year old will be a critical piece to Corinthians’ defence, which is in itself a critical piece to their success.

While players more talented than Juninho have found themselves swallowed up by the pressure at a big club, this youngster has what it takes to rise above his poor start and play a critical role in a successful 2018 for Corinthians. If he can do that, he could absolutely be a name that you see in Europe over the coming years.


Independiente (ARG)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


Copa Sudamericana 2017 champions Independiente go into the competition high in confidence after the recent continental success.  Under Ariel Holan, El Rojo have been playing attractive, attacking football and could be a force to be reckoned with.

Pitted against Brazilian champions Corinthians, there will be intriguing clash of styles between two of the continent’s biggest clubs and will be one of the highlights of the group stage.

As ever, success comes with a price in South American football and Independiente have seen some of their prize assets whisked away.

Ezequiel Barco, the young jewel in their crown, has moved to MLS outfit Atlanta United, while key defender Nicolás Tagliafico got a deserved move to Ajax.

Having said that, they’ve managed to recruit well, bringing in good squad players like Fernando Gaibor, Gonzalo Veron, Silvio Romero and Jonathan Menéndez.  They may not have too many stars now but that shouldn’t matter given the importance of Holan’s collective system and style of play.

Key Man: Silvio Romero

Independiente have a good variety of options up front but the acquisition of Silvio Romero gives them a genuine top quality forward.

Impressive at Lanus and prolific in Mexico, Romero was linked with a move to River over the break, but Independiente managed to bring him in and you’d think he’d be provided with plenty of chances to put away.

With Leandro Fernandez in good form and the likes of Gigliotti and fellow new boys Braian Romero and Jonathan Mendez breathing down his neck, there will be plenty of healthy competition which should keep him on his toes.

Young Talent: Fabricio Bustos

After the departure of Barco, the next best talent at the club is flying full-back Fabricio Bustos.

His energy, pace and dynamism down the right flank has seen him flourish under Holan’s progressive style of play and he even got a surprise call-up to the Argentina national team.

Given the paucity of options in that position, a good Libertadores campaign could see him mount a late, if unlikely, charge for place in Sampaoli’s World Cup squad.


Millionarios (COL)

By Simon Edwards – @SimonEdwardsSAF


The “Ambassadors” qualified for this year’s Copa Libertadores by winning the second league championship of the year in Colombia against local rivals Santa Fe.

In defence, experienced Cadavid will partner either the powerful, 6 foot 5 Janeiler ‘Chiquito’ Rivas or the Uruguayan Matias de Los Santos while at fullback they have the athletic, experienced pair of Jair Palacios and Felipe Banguero.

Across the midfield they have tidy, responsible, experienced passers who are also reliable defensively. Santiago Montoya will give them some more creativity for 2018, while Carrillo will bring some energy to ball-winning efforts.

In attack, Millonarios again have consistent, reliable options. Ayron del Valle won top scorer in two of the last three league tournaments in Colombia for Millonarios and can play at the point of the attack or breaking from just behind. He has been joined by bustling Paraguayan international target man Roberto Ovelar from Junior, who also has a consistent record.

Millonarios are a well-drilled unit built around a core of experienced professionals. In midfield they have the guile and quality to win the ball and move it effectively, the defence is solid and reliable, while up front they have a pair of seasoned strikers who can find the net.

Millonarios won’t spring too many surprises but they should be competitive across the group stage against strong opposition and will look to play some decent passing football along the way.

Key Man: Wuilker Faríñez

Millonarios should be competitive throughout but surpassing expectations will depend on some goalkeeping heroics, and in this regard they have the perfect man for the job.

Venezuelan sensation Wuilker Faríñez has joined from Caracas FC and his stay in Colombia is likely to be a short one as he is destined for greatness.

Faríñez made his Copa Libertadores debut as a starting goalkeeper at just sixteen and has already begun breaking records. He is the goalkeeper who has been unbeaten for the longest period in both the history of Venezuelan domestic football and the national side.

Faríñez has become an instant favourite at Millonarios and club captain Cadavid responded to his Supercopa winning display by saying “he is going to make more history than the rest of us combined”, adding “we are going to ask him for shirts when he is in Europe”.

Young Talent: Jader Valencia

While Millonarios first choice attacking options are experienced and consistent, they also have an exciting, pacy option coming of the bench who will hope to make an impact.

Jader Valencia made his debut in the second division at just 14 for Bogota FC. Despite only recently turning 18, he already has two years of first team football under his belt. The tall, pacey, forward can play as a winger or as a central striker and could be a surprise revelation of the tournament if he can get minutes.


Deportivo Lara (VEN)

By Nick Carter – @RedWineVzla


Deportivo Lara make their return to the CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores after a 2017 that was the archetypal game of two halves.

A midtable finish in the Torneo Apertura (13th) was followed by an excellent run in the Clausura where they lost just once on route to topping the table before beating Mineros de Guayana on penalties in the play-off final.

They then faced Monagas in the Gran Final as they bid to win their second Estrella but they were unable to triumph.

They are led by former Venezuelan international centre back, Leonardo González.  His favoured formation tends to be a fluid 4-4-2 with an emphasis on a passing style of play.  Generally, this includes a central midfielder with playmaking responsibilities to feed balls into pacey wingers and mobile strikers.

Jettisoned in to revive the fortunes of the club in 2016, they finished 7th in the 2016 Clausura before their somewhat disappointing start to 2017.  Luckily, González was backed in the transfer market and repaid the faith shown by the board and he has shown the potential to lead the national side one day.

They have enjoyed a relatively successful winter transfer window that has seen some significant arrivals, especially in the attacking sector.  Jesús Hernández has returned from an unsuccessful loan spell in Portuguese football and is joined by former Zamora striker Juan Falcón.

Former Zamora playmaker Pedro Ramírez and Colombian winger Herlbert Soto are also on board.  They’ve also done well to bring in Anderson Cardozo who can deputise for Carlos Sierra and they have retained the services of on-loan Táchira forward José Reyes.

The two big losses of the window are Lucas Gómez and José Caraballo.  They’ve arguably replaced Gómez but the jury is out as to whether they have sufficiently replaced Caraballo. They may miss his well-timed runs into the box to finish off attacking moves.

So far in 2018, they are unbeaten in 4 games, although they’ve only won once.   The team has been a little inconsistent and there are some worrying signs in the defence.

They nearly blew a 3 goal lead in the opening game of the season and they threw away a 3-1 lead at half time to draw against Zulia on Matchday 3.

We have seen González deviate from his favoured system and move towards a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 and even a 4-3-3 at times and I do wonder if he has quite found the balance needed.

Key Player: Carlos Sierra

The Colombian midfielder arrived in July from Panamanian outfit Tauro and transformed the side.  A classy central midfielder with an excellent understanding of the game, he was a huge driving force behind the improvement that Lara showed in the second half of the year.

He uses possession really well, directing play with probing passes from central midfield.  He’s also capable of going it alone when needed and can also be seen bringing the ball through the centre when an alternative plan is required.

The only concern is whether he and Pedro Ramírez can play in the same team together, is there enough space without upsetting the defensive balance?

Young Talent: Ignacio Anzola

Anzola made his debut at the start of 2017 and was a regular fixture in the squad during the Apertura.   a central defender at youth level, the majority of his performances with the senior team have been as a right back.  He’s calm and composed and he could have a promising future, although I think that this is more likely to be in the centre of defence.


Group 8

Boca Juniors (ARG)

By Tom Robinson – @tomrobbo89


The reigning Argentinian champions are currently in imperious form and sit comfortably atop of the Superliga.  Throw in the strength in depth and the return of Carlos Tevez, it is easy to see why they start as one of the pre-tournament favourites.

Even in a tricky group containing Palmeiras and Junior it would be a brave bet not to see them qualify for the knock-out stages.

Guillermo Barros’ Schelotto’s men favour a 4-3-3, with the full-backs and wide forwards providing plenty of width to complement the strong spine they possess.

Despite long term injuries to Darío Benedetto and Fernando Gago they have reinforced the squad further with Emanuel Mas, Julio Buffarini, Emanuel Reynoso, Ramon ‘Wanchope’ Abila and of course Carlos Tevez.  Their Colombian contingent of Frank Fabra, Wilmar Barrios and Edwin Cardona all play vital roles and if everything clicks then they’ll be difficult to stop.

Key Man: Carlos Tevez

It couldn’t really be anyone else, could it? Easily the biggest name in the competition, the striker has returned from his seven month “holiday” in China to bolster Boca Juniors attack and obviously should give them an extra edge.

Having said that, while being an undeniable game-changer, the arrival of such a big presence may take something away from the very effective team unit Boca had created, with a tendency to funnel everything through Tevez and make them overly predictable.

You could even argue that the true key player might be defensive midfield lynchpin Barrios but Tevez, rightly or wrongly, will be the lens that this side will be seen through.

Young Talent: Cristian Pavon

The 22-year-old wide forward has been one of the standout young stars of Argentinian football over the last 18 months.

A key part of Boca’s attacking triumvirate that propelled them to a title win last year, Pavon now has 22 goals and 21 assists for Boca from 72 games in all competitions and is a dark horse for a place in Argentina’s World Cup squad.

Linked with a number of European clubs from PSG to Arsenal, this will surely be his swan-song before a move across the pond.


Palmeiras (BRA)

By Austin Miller – @austin_james906


It’s not often that a second place finish in the league, a trip to the knockout stage in continental competition, and a quarterfinal appearance in the domestic cup can be considered a disappointment, but those set of results were classified as just that for Palmeiras in 2017.

Roger Machado has taken the reins, and the early returns have been quite good. The 2016 Brazilian champions are undefeated in 2018 heading into this weekend’s derby with Corinthians, but the pressure will ratchet up now as they look ahead to the start of their Libertadores campaign in a challenging group.

Verdão’s attack has been strong this year, especially with Lucas Lima and Gustavo Scarpa joining what was already an incredibly talented group that features team captain Dudu. While the attack seems set, the questions will be asked in defence, where the towering Colombian centre back Yerry Mina has moved on to Barcelona.

Antônio Carlos and Thiago Martins seem to be the first choice defensive pairing, but those two will have to be a little bit cleaner than they’ve shown so far if Verdão are to make a deep run in the Libertadores. 

Key Man: Miguel Borja

Palmeiras’ riches in the midfield and on the wing suggest that there should be a plethora of chances created by this group. It looks as though it will be up to Miguel Borja, a breakout star in the latter stages of the 2016 Libertadores with Atlético Nacional, to finish those chances.

Borja struggled to find his footing during his first year with Palmeiras, but he’s started 2018 in great form under new manager Roger Machado, scoring 5 goals in his first 7 matches. Borja’s success this year has come from a slight change in role.

The Colombian is no longer being asked to hold up play as a traditional 9, but is instead being used to run onto through balls from the dangerous playmakers and shoot, the formula that led to his success with Atlético Nacional. The biggest question for Borja will be whether he can keep this torrid form up when the opposition gets tougher. 

Young Talent: Artur

Palmeiras are unquestionably the Brazilian side most reliant on veterans, and while they possess a host of intriguing young talent, it’s fairly unlikely that we’ll see much of it during this year’s Libertadores.

Instead, those players could feature in Verdão’s league matches when Palmeiras rotate ahead of crucial Libertadores matches. One of those to keep an eye on is the 20-year old forward Artur. The youngster spent last season on loan with Série B side Londrina, and collected an impressive tally of 8 goals and 10 assists in 36 appearances.

Artur has been an unused substitute six times already in 2018, but could see some action as the year goes on and the matches add up for Verdão.


Alianza Lima (PER)

By Frederick Clayton – @FrederickJC1


Serial underperformers Alianza Lima are making their 25th appearance in the Copa Libertadores after a two-year absence. The golden generation of the 70s managed the semi-finals on two occasions, but Alianza have struggled to have any lasting legacy on the competition.

This year is unlikely to be any better for the side from Lima having been drawn in one of the more difficult groups. Alianza have stuttered in the early stages of the Peruvian Primera and got a taste of intercontinental competition in a friendly against Colo-Colo in February – losing 3-1.

It’ll take something very special for Los Blanquiazules to make it to the knock-out stages, leaving Real Garcilaso as the nation’s only real hope – and a silm one at that. If nothing else, Alianza will at least play a big part in the results of such a competition group, especially if they manage to nick some unexpected points against the aforementioned giants.

Key Man: Janio Posito 

Posito was brought in from Sport Rosario this winter to help lead Alianza Lima to another Primera title. Up in the high Andes of Huaraz, Posito impressed last season, helping Sport Rosario to an unexpected place in this year’s Copa Sudamericana, a feat many believed was far beyond the side.

As is so often the problem with unexpected success, Sport Rosario were gutted for their best players, and few would blame Posito for taking a move to the country’s biggest side and the chance to the play in the Copa Libertadores.

Posito will relish the opportunity for intercontinental football, his first time in the competition, and Alianza will hope that the biggest platform against some of the continent’s biggest clubs will give their leading man the impetus to have an impact.

Young Talent: Kevin Quevedo

Peruvian U20s striker Kevin Quevedo impressed for the Peruvian champions last season, scoring five goals in a year where he established himself as one of the first names off the bench.

He’ll be hoping to build on a strong start to his career, and is likely to make a few late appearances in this season’s Copa. Fellow U20 colleague José Cotrina is another one to look out for, working his way into the Alianza side after coming through their youth setup. Both are ones to watch out for as the season goes on, and both will be looking to impress when called upon during a congested a fixture list.


Junior (COL)

By Simon Edwards – @SimonEdwardsSAF


In the past few years Junior have gone from an underperforming club in chaos to a miniature Colombian version of Los Galacticos, breaking the national transfer record twice in a week.

Junior play an attacking, possession based football, working the ball in advanced areas and relying on the guile and creativity of Colombian international’s Yimmi Chara and Teofilo Gutierrez to unlock the opposition defence.

Experienced goalkeeper Sebastian Viera is a good shot stopper and a leader behind a decent but at times unconvincing defence. The fullbacks look to push on, which at times can leave the side exposed.

Playing with an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, the midfield two in front of the defence are vital in winning the ball and moving forward under pressure. Combative Leonardo Pico is predominantly the ball winner of the pair, while Victor Cantillo is tasked with switching defence to attack.

Yony González provides pace and drive on one wing, while the quick, classy and creative Yimmi Chara cuts in from the right. Experienced forward Teófilo Gutiérrez sits in behind the striker, which is either the bustling but inconsistent Ruiz or the smarter, sharper Uruguayan Jonathan Álvez.

Junior play a risky game with their high forward four and their unconvincing defence. Nevertheless, in games when they are on top they can move the ball extremely well and while they are up against it they will be able to counter at pace.

Key Man: Victor Cantillo

As Junior were building an all-star side of internationals, Victor Cantillo, a 24 year old midfielder player who had spent almost all of his career in the second division, arrived with very little fanfare.

Cantillo is a product of the Atlético Nacional youth system, but made no appearances for the Antioquia side and spent four year’s with second tier minnows Atlético FC and Leones. In 2017 he joined top flight Pasto and showed his quality, six months later he was at Junior.

El Flaco (the skinny one) has probably the toughest role in this Junior side but has really impressed. Hard working and disciplined defensively, he is extremely confident at receiving the ball under pressure, holding off opponents, exchanging one-twos and then slipping key passes to the Barranquilla side’s star studded attacks.

Young Talent: Jefferson Gomez

Twenty-one year old Jefferson Gomez has been on the verge of a major European move for the past three or four years, but injuries and circumstances have scuppered these plans.

Last year he moved from Envigado to Junior and made a composed, impressive start to his career before suffering an injury which has kept him out since August.

Gomez is extremely quick at covering and bringing the ball out of defence. He is technically excellent, confident on the ball and physically athletic. He has everything to be a top European defender and if he can get fit and break into the team, he could make an impact on this year’s Libertadores.