The premier club competition in South American football nears the half-way point of the group stages
One of the many factors that make the Copa Libertadores such an enjoyable competition to watch is its inherent unpredictability.
Brazil and Argentina share fourteen entrants in the 2017 edition – with bookmakers installing most of them among the favourites – yet it is rarely so simple for the continent’s richest and most iconic names.
The nine fixtures over the next two days will showcase just what makes the Libertadores so unique.
Can anyone match Palmeiras? Who can stop River Plate’s plethora of talented young forwards? Can the four Brazilian teams pick up wins on their travels?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key fixtures.
Estudiantes vs Atlético Nacional
A fixture which initially stood out: the Argentinian giants versus the reigning champions.
Things are not quite so simple in the Libertadores.
Both sides have suffered consecutive defeats and face a real challenge to qualify for the knockout phase.
El León president Juan Sebastián Verón returned to become the oldest Libertadores player ever in the defeat to Barcelona. The Argentine legend lined up alongside the delightful Santiago Ascacibar but the powerful midfield duo could not prevent Barcelona from winning 2-0 in La Plata.
Nacional have suffered from their successes. Winning the competition has seen them stripped of their best assets: Miguel Borja and Alejandro Guerra both moved to Palmeiras, Orlando Berrio swapped Medellín for Rio de Janeiro, and Marlos Moreno (Manchester City) and Davinson Sánchez (Ajax) got their big moves to Europe.
Atlético are suffering from serious fixture congestion. Their Libertadores defeat to Botafogo was followed by a routine home victory over Envigado as recently as Monday.
Estudiantes should be able to put their poor continental form behind them and take the three points against a dilapidated Atlético side.
Santa Fe vs Santos
Santos have returned to the Libertadores after a five-year hiatus and have a difficult group. The money in Brazilian football makes them clear favourites, but trips to Santa Fe and The Strongest are amongst the most difficult in this group stage.
Santa Fe – winners of the 2015 Sudamericana – have one win and one defeat from their opening two games.
To qualify, the Colombians will need to better the home form of The Strongest. The tricky Bolivian outfit travel to Peru to face Sporting Cristal tonight.
Libertad vs Atlético Mineiro
Trips to Asunción can be fraught with danger, but Libertad have completed just one Copa win in four years at the Estadio Leoz.
Mineiro are blessed with numerous attacking talents. The oft-derided Fred top-scored in Serie A last season, and is ably supported by Robinho, Elias, Luan and Juan Cazares.
Fred already has five goals in this season’s Libertadores, four of which came in last week’s victory over Sport Boys.
The attacking threat of Robinho and Fred is the reason why they have been installed as second favourites to Palmeiras. Beware their tendency to panic, however: Sport Boys lead 2-1 in Brazil until the 72nd minute, until Fred’s blitzkrieg saw Atlético run out as 5-2 winners.
Should Roger Machado’s side keep it tight during the first half, expect them to claim all three points from Libertad.
Godoy Cruz vs Sport Boys
Due to the unique incompetence of the Argentinian Football Association, their Primera resumed one month late after a chaotic winter break. As a result, Libertadores clubs began their continental competitions having played no competitive football for almost three months.
While San Lorenzo and Atlético Tucumán are yet to register a win after three games, Godoy Cruz have started brightly.
A 2-1 win away to Libertad was followed by a positive draw with Atlético Mineiro in Mendoza.
Prioritising the Copa has seen Godoy Cruz slide down the Primera in recent weeks. However, Bernardi’s side did get back to winning ways at the weekend in a 3-1 home win against ten-man Banfield.
Surely El Tomba will have enough for the Bolivian minnows at home?
Guaraní vs Grêmio
Grêmio have a challenging excursion as they travel to 2015 semi-finalists Guaraní. Again, both sides have registered two victories in the competition proper.
The Grêmio squad has enviable depth: internationals Luan, Miller Bolaños and Lucas Barrios will bring plenty of goals.
Like compatriots Botafogo, they have a few issues at the back – conceding two second half goals to Deportes Iquique was not in the script last week. Argentinian Walter Kannemann won this competition with San Lorenzo in 2014 and has the requisite experience and defensive ability to sure up Renato Gaúcho’s backline.
Unlike near-neighbours Libertad, Guaraní have an excellent home record in the Copa.
The Clausura champions are unbeaten in their last eight games at the Estadio Livieres, winning six.
Seventeen-year-old Antonio Marín did not get off the bench in Guaraní’s victory against Zamora last Wednesday, but could do so here. The promising striker has three goals in eight appearances this year.
Expect goals here: twelve have already been scored in the four games the two clubs have played thus far.
Barcelona vs Botafogo
In Group One, something must give as Botafogo travel to Guayaquil. Both the Brazilians and Guillermo Almada’s Barcelona have taken two wins from two. Both sides have beaten reigning champions Atlético Nacional, as well as Argentinian giants Estudiantes, but Barcelona have done so more impressively: by winning in Argentina.
The two-time runners-up have assembled a tight-knit squad that collected ninety-nine points from forty-four games in the Ecuadorian domestic league of 2016.
With league form this season understandably moved to the back of their minds, Amalda’s men can take a giant leap to qualifying from the toughest group by avoiding defeat on Thursday night.
Conservative Botafogo look short on goals despite having added Guilherme (on loan from Grêmio) and the Cameroonian Joel (on loan from Cruizero). Do not bet against another good result for the Ecuadorians.
Emelec vs River Plate
River Plate are the best placed Argentinian side in the Libertadores.
Only Bolivian outfit Jorge Wilstermann have scored more than Los Millonarios, having already played one game more.
Emelec of Ecuador will be a stern challenge on Thursday night, but Marcelo Gallardo will be confident that his startlingly good attacking options can cause the hosts enough trouble; even if he has defensive concerns of his own.
Seba Driussi is in sparkling form, with twelve goals in the Primera and three in the Copa; Pity Martinez has rediscovered some of his early River form that caught the attention of the European elite; Rodrigo Mora has also found the net in recent games.
The three are ably supporting Lucas Alario, River’s talismanic striker and another who has European scouts working frantically to see him in action.
Zamora host Deportes Iquique in Barinas on Wednesday night, while Medellín versus Melgar completes the action in River’s group.
With five potentially problematic away trips for the hotly-tipped sides, this week will go a long way towards indicating who has the required mental strength for a run to the final.
Will the big money of Brazil find a way past ‘smaller’ opposition? Can Marcelo Gallardo use his Copa-winning experience to guide River to a third straight win? And will it be Estudiantes or Atletico Nacional who kick-start their continental campaigns in La Plata?