Colombians win competition against Ecuador's Independiente del Valle.


What makes the two young Rosario Central players Franco Cervi and Giovani Lo Celso the players they are?


An interview with Uruguayan sports journalist Nicolás Difiori ahead of Sunday's Clásico.


Taking a look at the next great Argentinian #5, the next Javier Mascherano.


Colombians win the Copa Sudamericana after penalty thriller against Huracán.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Copa Libertadores Week 2 - The good, the bad, the ugly

Week 2 of Copa Libertadores action is in the books and the last teams played their first games, including holders Atlético Nacional from Colombia. How things went the past week and what was special can be read in this week's edition of "The good, the bad, the ugly".

Palmeiras' Jerry Mina celebrating his goal against Jorge Wilstermann (Photo:

The good: Ultimate unpredictability

What a week of games it was in South America's elite competition. Just when you thought you could predict the outcome of a game, the teams would prove you wrong again. Not a single one of the clubs that got a win in week 1 could produce the same success the second time around. 

In particular group 7 stands out, where teams collected four away wins on four occasions so far. After being pretty much without a chance against Nacional the past week, CA Lanús came back with a win away to Chapecoense. While the Brazilians even took the lead early in the second half, Argentina's champion struck back with three goals from Nicolás Aguirre, José Sand and Lautaro Acosta. Not anyone would have expected Venezuelan side Zulia celebrate a victory in Montevideo as they faced Nacional away from home, yet they came away with a 0-1 win after a great performance from Juan Arango and a little luck from a not given penalty.

The other club from Montevideo, Peñarol, did its job at home a little better and won 2-1 over Atlético Tucumán after just having their behinds handed to them by Jorge Wilstermann a week ago (6-2). In Brazil, that same Wilstermann side was defeated 1-0 by Palmeiras. It was close however, considering Yerry Mina's decisive goal came in the last minute. 

Flamengo, up in the power rankings after a stunning week 1 victory over San Lorenzo, disappointed away to Universidad Católica in Chile, losing 1-0 to a Santiago Silva strike. The group is now led by that same Católica and Atlético Paranaense, while Flamengo and San Lorenzo find themselves out of a round of 16 spot at the moment. 

One of the biggest outsiders of the competition, Melgar from Peru, celebrated a win in their first match this season. Luis García's goal was enough to get by Ecuadorian side Emelec 1-0. Lastly, we have Botafogo and Barcelona leading group A instead of Atlético Nacional and Estudiantes. If you are a betting man, you probably have lost every last hair during the past week.

Take a look at the goal of the week, Roger's wonder strike for Botafogo:

The bad:

It has been two weeks and we still cannot be too certain where the Argentine teams actually stand. Despite River's good performance (see below) and Lanús' win away to newly built Chapecoense, the others still struggled. Estudiantes might have been competitive against Botafogo, but only so long. When it got towards the end of the game, it was all Botafogo, including Rodrigo Pimpao's goal after 79 minutes.

San Lorenzo is still without a point after their previous two disastrous Copa Libertadores campaigns. They appear on the verge of waving goodbye to the competition early on yet again. Their loss against Atlético Paranaense was not really deserved, considering the home team's large advantage in shots on goal. The only problem: They could not use any of their chances. In the 76th minute, San Lorenzo even missed a penalty from Nicolas Blandi. Ironically, the team's foolproof penalty taker Nestor Ortigoza had been substituted three minutes before.

Atlético Tucumán is another story, as it is a surprise they even qualified for the competition. However, when taking an away lead in Montevideo after an hour, you would think to strengthen your defense immediately and do everything to keep that lead. That was not so much their idea, which is why Peñarol scored two goals in the 67th and 68th minute to turn around the match in their own favour. 

The ugly: Rain chaos in Medellín

Wait a minute, what was that? Medellín was under water for the first match of group 3. Independiente Medellín faced River Plate in what turned out to be a 3-1 away win for the Argentines. Until we got there, it took longer than usual. Referee Wilton Sampaio had to take the players inside after 26 minutes, before coming back out nearly an hour later. What followed after was a beautiful display of football from River who scored three unanswered goals from Lucas Alario, Sebastián Driussi and Lucas Martínez. Right before the end, the Colombians got one back via penalty from Juan Quintero. Considering the conditions, we saw a decent game including a surprising amount of offense, especially from the visitors.

Week 3 will have to wait a little due to the international break. The next game is scheduled to take place on April 11 when Jorge Wilstermann welcomes Atlético Tucumán at home. The Bolivians can distance themselves by six points from their Argentine counterparts. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ever Almeida - Paraguayan legend from Uruguay

Small cities are not always on people's minds when it comes to the creation of great things. On a continent that produced and still produces great footballers in abundance, cities like Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro or Montevideo spring to mind quickly. A smaller one, with just about 120.000 inhabitants is the birthplace of two of Uruguay's greatest current footballers: Salto. Over in Europe, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani fight for Europe's scoring crown. The holder of the record for most games in the Copa Libertadores was also born in the city in Uruguay's northwest. This is a story about Ever Almeida, the Uruguayan goalkeeper that became a legend in Paraguay.

Salto, Uruguay (Photo:
Salto is a lovely city, popular among tourists visiting the small country along the Río Uruguay. The city presents itself with beaches along the river, about 20km of length. Most popular for its beaches and its various hot springs, Salto offers a lot of tours in a culture-profile city. With stunning architecture from the 19th and 20th century, you can see quite quickly why Uruguayans enjoy this place as much as tourists do.

Who knows what the reasons are for the surprising rate of high quality footballers, but the list of Suárez, Cavani and Co. cannot lie. Ever Almeida was born in the same city, over 68 years ago, on July 1, 1948. It was quite clear early on, that Almeida would be something special. As a goalkeeper, he signed his first professional contract with CA Cerro aged 19. Almeida quickly found his place and collected 128 appearances in his home country. When he moved away from home, Salto knew they had lost a good player, but did not know he would never come back. Instead, he went on to become a true legend in his new surroundings. Just across the border, Paraguay's Guaraní became aware of his potential in 1972 and signed him for their team. 

Ever Almeida on the shoulders of his Olimpia teammates (Photo:
Just 12 appearances after, Almeida received an offer that changed South American football history forever. It was Guaraní's rivals Olimpia, that secured the services of the then-25 year old. What nobody knew at this point was the fact that Ever Almeida would remain a part of the team until the end of his career, a long 19 years later. In the process, he beat every record imaginable. One of them for the most appearances in the Copa Libertadores. His 113 appearances, all with the same team, are likely never going to be beaten, considering not one other player in history even reached 100. 

Apart from all his titles, that one game in 1984 stood out. About ten minutes from the end, his teammates let him step up to take a penalty against Argentina's Estudiantes while the score was 0-0. He converted for the only goal in his professional football career and the first goal ever to be scored by a goalkeeper in the competition. Sadly, I was unable to find any video content on this game online. Even better than his ability to score from penalties were his skills to save them on the other end. Strikers feared going up against the born Uruguayan.

Talking of his titles however, Almeida collected quite a handful. After becoming a naturalized Paraguayan in 1975, the collection started with his first league title. Nine more domestic titles in Paraguay should follow, along with two Copa Libertadores triumphs, a Copa Interamericana, the Intercontinental Cup, Supercopa Sudamericana and a Recopa Sudamericana in his final year. Especially 1979 stood out dramatically with Olimpia winning four titles in one season, crowing their title hunt with the win over European champions Malmö FF

Considering he his new-found home in Paraguay, he also played football for the countries' national team on 20 occasions, most notably being a part of the World Cup 1986 squad. He could not play in Mexico's event due to an injury but saw his team do quite well until the round of 16 and a 0-3 knockout against England.

Goalkeeper of Paraguay's national team on 20 occasions, here on a Panini sticker.
If you had thought his success would stop when ending his career, you found yourself wrong very quickly. After taking over Asunción's Nacional as coach for a year in 1992 , he found himself back home already. Olimpia was calling and Almeida was on his way. It fits the storyline that he won the Paraguayan league title right away in 1993. It was the start to a long journey as a football coach that is still going strong today. Going back to Olimpia and Nacional on two more occasions, he is currently in charge of the latter once again. In the meantime, he was also involved at Sportivo Luqueño, Sol de América, Paraguay's national team, Municipal (Guatemala), El Nacional, Barcelona SC, the Guatemalan national team and Libertad. 

In particular his time in Guatemala was regarded very highly and brought him many trophies on club level and successful nights with the national side. His work led the U20 team of Guatemala to the World Cup in Colombia, an achievement noone had ever accomplished in the Central American country before. 

Is Almeida showing any signs of slowing down just yet? Not really, but his Nacional side will need to improve in Paraguay's Primera. They currently sit in last with no wins after six games. Even if they fail to a win a game all season, Ever Almeida's legacy cannot be torn down. Who knows, maybe Olimpia will inquire for the man's help again soon as well. A Paraguayan legend from Salto, the city of hot springs. More than just tourists.

Zulia surprise with away win against Nacional

Nacional played their first home game of the 2017 Copa Libertadores season against Zulia FC tonight. The match did not quite go according to plan and saw the Uruguayans lose by a goal to nil.
Gran Parque Central on Copa Libertadores night (Photo: Pasión Tricolor Twitter).

Personnel: Two changes for Nacional, three for Zulia

Martín Lasarte brought in Tabaré Viudez who had been lively after coming on against Racing Club on the weekend. He filled the right midfield position in place of Álvaro González, that moved to defensive midfield instead. This whole area of the pitch was a new one, as Santiago Romero had to be replaced and Diego Arismendi was needed at centre-back for the injured Rafael García. Gonzalo Porras rotated into the first XI.

On the other side, coach Daniel Farías swapped three times from the 1-2 home loss against Chapecoense. The defense saw the most changes as both Daniel Rivillo and Sandro Notaroberto went out to be replaced by Kerwin Chirinos and Edixon Cuevas. In addition, César Gómez was replaced by Luciano Guaycochea.

First half: Counters from Zulia enough for lead

Both teams attempted their best to get a positive start for their respective sides. Especially Zulia let the ball circulate well for extended periods of time. Yet the first true chance had to be waited upon until the 14th minute when a shot by Nacional's #9 Hugo Silveira got deflected and had to be saved alertly by the visiting goalkeeper Renny Vega. On the other side, Jefferson Savarino fired a shot wide, was however whistled offside shortly before.

While the Uruguayan champions tried to control the game and moved forward towards the opposing penalty area, they often misplaced passes in midfield, leaving Zulia's midfielders around Juan Arango way too much freedom. Even though the Venezuelan counterattacks could not quite convince regarding an end product, they remained a threat for Nacional's back four.

In the 31st minute, Gran Parque Central saw its first goal of the night, surprisingly coming from the visitors. Zulia beat Nacional with speed and skill, as Arango's high through-ball found the run of Savarino perfectly. Arismendi had been unable to reach the ball with his head, paving the way in on goal for Zulia's #10. He made no mistake and finished past Esteban Conde into the far post.

Zulia kept their danger on the counter up on several occasions afterwards as well. They really deserved their lead here considering Nacional's lack of concentration or decisiveness going forward. Arismendi kept getting exposed in his unusual role and picked up a yellow card in the process, too. Right in added time of the first half, Nacional managed one more big chance when Porras' shot was saved magnificently by Vega with one hand. We went to halftime with an away lead.

Second half: Last big chance wasted by Nacional

The start to the second 45 minutes was much more eventful than the first time around. Inside one minute, Arismendi produced his next huge error that left the strong Yohandry Orozco wide open in the area, but his shot his the crossbar. A minute later, Silveira's sharp cross could not find the waiting Viudez in the middle. Finally, after 52 minutes Martín Lasarte realised that Arismendi at the back was a mistake and replaced him with the talented Agustín Rogel.

Nacional had to do more now offensively and produced half chances from Kevin Ramírez, Tata González and Alfonso Espino in the process.  Lasarte had to risk more at the hour mark and brought on striker Rodrigo Aguirre for Seba Fernández who never really got into the game. Shortly after, Rogel was held during a freekick, before being knocked down by the goalie storming out. The referee missed it alltogether and did not give a penalty.

The home team pressured their opponents much better than they did during the first half and Zulia enjoyed less time on the ball for their creative midfielders. This was also due to Rogel's direct impact who did a nice job in a stronger Nacional back line. Another player to have a potentially big impact? Lasarte's final substitute Martín Ligüera that convinced with goal and assist against Racing on the weekend.

Had Ligüera been a few centimeters taller, he could have reached Ramírez cross not too long after coming on, but it slid out for a goalkick instead. After 87 minutes, Nacional got their huge chance to get the equaliser after all: Polenta won the ball nicely and crossed into the middle to find a wide open Ramírez. His rough luck on the night continued as he volleyed it wide, which was in fact far more complicated than hitting the net. It ended with the surprise away win, 0-1 to Zulia.


Two things stopped Nacional from taking the win at home today. Firstly, their incredibly poor midfield and defensive performance in the first half that was rightly punished with a 0-1 deficit. Way too much space was left for Arango, Oroczo and Co. Secondly, they lacked their usual creative spirit including the necessary cutting edge chances. Even though they looked dangerous in the second half, should have had a penalty and nearly scored right at the end, they did not do quite enough overall. Zulia deserved the win thanks to a brave away performance in Montevideo.

Man of the Match

Juan Arango was simply outstanding in Zulia's midfield today, particularly during the first half. He was always there when needed for his teammates to be the recipient of any kind of pass. In addition, he assisted the only goal beautifully and showed that you do not have to be 18 to be a successful football player in 2017.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Copa Libertadores Week 1 Power Rankings

Week 1 of the 2017 Copa Libertadores is in the books and we take a look at all the teams through a power ranking format. Who can be called a favourite after the first impressions?

The champion has to be number 1. Atlético Nacional did not take the field in Group A yet, but until they do so and do not convince, they earned top spot. Their first match will come in on March 15 against Barcelona SC. 

Throroughly impressive in their 4-0 thumping of San Lorenzo, Flamengo went all the way up in the rankings early on. Their group, including fellow Brazilians Paranaense and Universidad Católica is very doable. 

Not an out of this world performance from Nacional, but an away win at Argentine champions Lanús should count as a more than decent start for the Uruguayans. With a great start and games against Zulia and Chapecoense upcoming, they look set for the round of 16 sooner rather than later.

Without playing a game so far, River Plate look like the strongest of all Argentine sides out in the competition, more so after the disappointing performances of their countrymen. They have a highly manageable group and will start doing so March 16.

The Bolivians continue to be an absolute bank at home, winning their first game 2-0 against Santa Fe. If "Chumasteiger" continues his outstanding goalscoring form (6 goals in 5 games), we will see The Strongest in the round of 16.

Arguably the second strongest Argentine side, Estudiantes will need to find their legs quickly after dropping their league opener last night. In a group with holders Atlético Nacional, they can not make any mistake. Their first group match will be away to Botafogo on March 15.

Despite an away draw at Atlético Tucumán, Palmeiras look set for a successful campain, considering they played 70 minutes of said match down one man. When striker Miguel Borja finds his scoring form over in Brazil, it will be lights out for group opponents Peñarol and Jorge Wilstermann.

Talking of the Bolivians: Jorge Wilstermann find themselves in #8. Their 6-2 trashing of Peñarol was very impressive and their way to react to things getting close again convinced. They will however have trouble away from home against sides such as Palmeiras.

The third Brazilian side in the top 10. Grêmio did not impress, but did enough to celebrate a 0-2 win away to Zamora FC. It is all that counts at the moment: points. In a group with Deportes Iquique and Guaraní, they look set for the group win.

Chapecoense playing by itself is enough to get them into this ranking. But a mentally strong 2-1 win away in Venezuela's Zulia was impressive and sees them sit on top of their group to start with. Lanús and Nacional however will be another challenge. 

Copa Libertadores Week 1 - The good, the bad, the ugly

The first week of 2017 Copa Libertadores action is in the books and we take a look at what went well and what did not. The good, the bad, the ugly.

Good: Outstanding week for Bolivia, Cristal get point

The Strongest celebrate their next home win in the Libertadores.
One thing that was not to be expected when entering the 2017 Copa Libertadores season were outstanding performances from Bolivian clubs. They proved everyone wrong in week 1 and came away with two wins and a draw. While some might argue that it all happened up in the notoriously difficult Bolivian mountains, it still remains a feat that needs to be accomplished first. 

Jorge Wilstermann shocked Peñarol by scoring a whopping six against the Uruguayans. Their 6-2 win in a battle between two teams of ten put them in a good group position early on, ahead of Atlético Tucumán, Palmeiras and their opponent of the night, Peñarol. Especially Gabriel Ríos sent the game towards winning ways early on by scoring two first-half goals, even though the first one them should not have counted. In addition, he "won" the sending-off for Peñarol's Juan Boselli. When it got close and the Uruguayan visitors struck twice, Wilstermann just added another three for their impressive win. 

The Strongest continued where they had left off in the qualification phase. Their 2-0 home win against Colombia's Santa Fe came without too much surprise. Alejandro Chumacero was once again the man of the match, scoring both goals. Especially the first half was less of a clear case and The Strongest goalkeeper Daniel Vaca had to deny the attacking visitors on multiple occasions. Even though they ended up losing, it remained an encouraging night for Santa Fe as they go forward.

Lastly, Sport Boys Warnes entered the competition as well and did so with an exciting 3-3 draw against Paraguay's Libertad. Not very Bolivian-like was the way to come back from falling behind on all three goals. Sport Boys, coached by former Bolivian NT boss Xabier Azkargota, showed a lot of character and give a country hope that maybe, just maybe, their football has a chance this season.

Peru's Sporting Cristal surprised South America last night as well by winning an unlikely point in their home outing against Brazilian runners-up Santos. More surprising than the point was the fact that the match was evenly contested across the ninety minutes. In the last few minutes, it was not the heavy favourites that pressured the Peruvian outsiders, but instead the other way around. A lovely freekick from Carlos Lobatón found Jorge Cazulo's head early on, a lead that Sporting Cristal held onto until the 67th minute, when Thiago Maia equalized. Lucas Lima's assist for this goal was from another world as well, as he chipped the ball over Cristal's defense nicely. 

Bad: San Lorenzo get smacked in Brazil, bad week for Venezuela

Disaster at the Maracana: San Lorenzo's players walk away disappointed after a 4-0 loss.
After their last two embarrassing group exits, people expect more from San Lorenzo this season. They disappointed yet again to start their 2017 campaign, losing 4-0 to Brazilian side Flamengo. Is it easy to play in Brazil, in the Maracana? Certainly not, but that heavy of a loss came unexpected. While the first half ended all even at zero, the second 45 turned into a night to forget for the Argentina club. Goals from Diego, Miguel Trauco, Romulo and Gabriel saw them get smacked. Former Werder Bremen and Juventus man Diego was the man of the match, giving his team the lead with a beautiful direct freekick (see video below) before assisting another two goals from his teammates. Paolo Guerrero could have even made it 5-0, but missed a penalty.

Venezuela, the other struggling nation from South America (and not only football-wise sadly), had a much worse week than Bolivia. With just two teams in the competition, both of them enjoyed a home game in the opening week. You guessed it, both of them lost to Brazilian sides.

Zulia's 1-2 defeat came in a special night as they welcomed the new team from Chapecoense. It was a night which was about a lot more than just football, but the visiting team did a good job and got a 2-0 lead through a freekick from an impossible angle by Reinaldo and another goal from Luiz Antonio. Zulia struck back through former Mönchengladbach winger Juan Arango. It was not enough and Zulia fall behind early in a strong group that also includes Nacional and Lanús.

Zamora faced Grêmio in the other match and lost 0-2 without much of a chance. The Venezuelans were in it, but their lack of precision let them down as they only collected one shot on target throughout the 90 minutes. Grêmio on the other end did not do much more than they had to and got their goals late in the first half (Leó Moura) and via penalty early in the second (Luan).

Ugly: What's up, Argentina?

While Venezuelan losses came somewhat expected, the performances of the Argentina clubs were highly underwhelming. Their problem without league football translated straight into matchday 1 of the Copa Libertadores, leaving them without a win. San Lorenzo lost their game in Brazil heavily, champions Lanús were disappointing in their home match against Nacional. 

Atlético Tucumán might not be the biggest caliber of the competition, but playing with 11 against 10 for 70 minutes should fetch a better result than a 1-1 draw against Palmeiras, especially after taking the lead right after Vitor Hugo's red card. Lastly, Godoy Cruz played okay, but still only found a draw against Atlético Mineiro. A second minute striker from Javier Correa was equalized by Fred's penalty. 

Argentina's best two clubs in the competition, River Plate and Estudiantes, only enter the competition in the coming weeks, giving them hope that things might get better in the future. Particularly the return of the league season after the strike last night should help. 

Nacional start Copa Libertadores with win over Lanús

After 18 long days, Nacional finally returned to action with their Copa Libertadores tie in Argentina. Their opponents were of high caliber in domestic champions CA Lanús, who had not played a competitive game at all in 2017 as of yet.

Strong away support following Nacional to Argentina (Photo: Nacional/Twitter).

Personnel: Tata González gets his first start

Álvaro González claimed the headlines early as he made his first start for Nacional, replacing Brian Lozano in right midfield. It was the only change made by Martín Lasarte from the last league outing. Lanús coach Jorge Almirón on the other hand used none of his newly signed players in his first XI and trusted the likes of José Sand and Lautaro Acosta. Goalkeeper Esteban Andrada replaced the injured Fernando Monetti, who was a big loss for the Argentines.

First half: Decent away performance underlined by lead

The opening stages of the match were relatively quiet with both teams trying to find a way to settle following their long breaks. A first attempt from Kevin Ramírez flew wide after 9 minutes. Just one minute later, it was Hugo Silveira, who used an error in Lanús' defense, but had his shot saved by Andrada. Uruguay's record champion enjoyed a decent start, not only because of two half chances. They did not offer the home team any room at all going forward and controlled the game from their own half. 

It took Lanús 24 minutes to produce a first bit of danger around Nacional's penalty area, yet they failed to get a clear shot on goal in the process. Lasarte's back line blocked shot after shot beautifully before clearing the danger. An attack across the left wing brought the deserved lead for Nacional after 26 minutes. Ramírez played an excellent ball towards Espino under pressure and the left-back, after advancing forward, found Silveira in the middle with the perfect pass, leaving the striker with no other option than to score. 

Hugo Silveira celebrates after giving his team the lead.
The Uruguayans nearly got a second goal not too long after when Ramírez was sent through with a high ball, but Andrade was there in time to clear the danger. Lanús struggled to find an answer to the goal against, but had an excellent chance after 35 minutes. A mad scramble in the 6-yard box ended with the ball hitting Silveira's hand (accidentally). He managed to clear it away from his own goal line. On the other side, the lively Ramírez had yet another chance to make it 2-0 and sent the ball narrowly wide. 

Second half: A few scares, but across the finish line

Lanús did not get a much better start to the second 45 minutes either. An even match saw both teams fight their midfield battles for quite some time. After about an hour, the home team collected a little more possession, without actually threatening Esteban Conde's goal. Nacional did the obvious in the meantime and waited for their chance to counter. 

Lanús had their first chance of the second half after 67 minutes, Román Martínez' header from a corner, denied in magnificent fashion by the aforementioned Conde. What makes the save more impressive is his absolute non-existent involvement in the previous 20 minutes. Both coaches produced a series of substitutions, which for example saw goalscorer Silveira exit the field after a good performance. 

Reaching the last 10 minutes, it was all or nothing time for the Argentines. You would have thought so at least. Nacional's defense still held up strong and Lanús did not exactly seem like a team filled with the last bit of energy, which is understandable considering their heavy amount of time without competitive football. It ended with just the one goal and a 1-0 win for Nacional.

Man of the Match: Rafael García 

Rock-solid at the back, without any mistakes, even dangerous up front for set pieces, Garcia was leading his team together with captain Diego Polenta throughout the 90 minutes to a deserved win. The few amount of chances for Lanús underline a very good defensive away performance. Just what Nacional and Lasarte wanted from their back-line and XI. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Copa Libertadores Preview - Group 1

In the next few days, we will preview the upcoming 2017 Copa Libertadores season. Today's preview includes Group 1 with Atlético Nacional, Estudiantes, Botafogo and Barcelona SC.

Atlético Nacional

The holders with their next attempt at glory: Atlético Nacional (Photo:
Following their second triumph in South America's biggest competition, Atlético Nacional attack again and try to defend last year's title. Quite naturally, the holders will have to do so without many of their standout players that helped them bring the Copa home to Colombia. Three of their most sought-after talents, Miguel Borja, Marlos Moreno and Davinson Sánchez, let Atlético Nacional's cash register ring loudly. In total, those three players alone got them over €20 million for their transfers to Palmeiras, Manchester City and Ajax Amsterdam respectively. 

Their replacements probably cannot compete at the same level, but parts of the successful squad remained in Medellín. These include goalkeeper Franco Armani, leftback Farid Díaz or popular offensive dynamo Macnelly Torres. Several teams showed interest in his services, but the Colombian international chose to stay where his heart is. 

However, do not underestimate this team. Atlético Nacional remains a team full of experience and talent, with several youngsters having just joined the first team from the club's very own youth system. These include 19-year old midfielder Juan Pablo Ramírez and the superb 17-year old centre-back Carlos Cuesta, who already collected 62 minutes of professional playing time in last year's Copa Sudamericana campaign. 

The question that remains up in the air for me is whether Reinaldo Rueda's men can cope with the loss of their, admittedly short-term, striker star Borja up front. Arley Rodríguez could be the one to find himself in the starting XI more frequently on the international stage in 2017. Atlético Nacional could well fight against Botafogo for the second spot in the group. 

Estudiantes de la Plata

Next try of a legend: Juan Verón will play for Estudiantes (Photo:
The iconic side from Argentina is back in the Copa Libertadores after a year-long absence and they appear quite strong. After dominating the Argentina league for most of the year early on, they dropped off a little towards the end, sitting in fourth for whenever it actually continues there (apparently soon). The story of the summer was obviously the comeback of club president Juan Sebastián Verón. The 41-year old only wants to play in the Copa Libertadores and could well do so in 2017.

With Mariano Andújar, Estudiantes have a reliable goalkeeper, that came over from Napoli last summer. He started in nine league games for his new club and kept a clean sheet on six occasions. Surely it can not only be his achievement, considering the club's strong defensive unit. However, they could really use a few additional centre-backs. 

In midfield, one of Argentina's brightest young talents in Santiago Ascacíbar holds down the fort. He is a regular for Estudiantes aged 20 and was an integral part of his countries' Sudamericano Sub 20 team. 19-year old Lucas Rodríguez, who calls the offensive midfield his home, is another one of these talented players that we could well see in Europe sooner rather than later, providing a successful Libertadores season from Estudiantes.

Questions regarding experience remain with a very young midfield and attacking group. But experienced players such as Verón or striker Lucas Viatri should hold the team together and let them advance into the round of 16 quite easily. Everything else would be a surprise. 


Botafogo's players after their successful qualification to the Libertadores group stages (Photo:
The club from Rio de Janeiro had a great season after being promoted back into Brazil's Serie A just last year. They went straight into the qualification phase of the Copa Libertadores and prevailed over the likes of Chile's Colo Colo and Paraguay's Olimpia. Their group could be easier, but their performances have shown that they can compete with some of the continent's best teams. Whether that will stay the case over the course of the season, mainly in terms of consistency, remains to the seen. 

37-year old coach Jair Ventura usually has his team lined up in a 4-2-3-1. When returning from a year-long injury soon, Jefferson should see his return between the posts. The goalkeeper has been a key part of the squad since 2009 and saved the team on countless occasions, until even he was not enough to avoid relegation anymore. While their defense was reliable last season, their goalscoring output was not too convincing (43 in 38 games). 

To change that will be one of the main tasks for the line of three playing behind striker Roger. Camilo down the middle was Botafogo's best player in 2016 and scored six Serie A goals. His performances this year have not been up to quite the same standard yet. To bail him out, Rodrigo Pimpão has emerged and turned into the club's biggest weapon during the qualifying stages. Pimpão scored key goals against both Colo Colo and Olimpia. Finally, on the right side of Camilo, we find Wálter Montillo. The Argentine returned to Brazil after a short intermezzo in China and joined Botafogo in January. Montillo has a lot of experience that will be helpful in the continental competition, which is new to all the younger players.

If the offense can find its rhythm, I would not be surprised to see Botafogo leave two teams behind them. With Atlético Nacional looking weaker than in previous years and Jefferson returning soon, it could well be the case. Thank you to Nathalia for the details regarding Botafogo.

Barcelona SC

Colorful nights await the football fans of Ecuador's Barcelona SC.
Ecuador's version of Barcelona returns to the Libertadores this year as well. The 15-time domestic champion does so being the clear outsider of the group and without a real star on the team. Goalkeeper Máximo Banguera could be called one of them as a part of Ecuador's national team squad. 

Their focal point of strengthening during the Janaury transfer window was quite clearly the centre-back position. Darío Aimar (LDU Loja) and Jefferson Mena (NYC FC) are just two of the new candidates auditioning for a spot in Barcelona's starting XI under the Copa Libertadores floodlights. Matías Ojola remains a key piece in the Ecuadorian defensive midfield. Four days before his 34th birthday, the diminuative player was given the debut for his national team last October. Offensively, Damián Díaz will be relied upon. 

The front three includes Marcos Caicedo and Ely Esterilla flanking Uruguayan striker Jonatan Álvez. He has scored in double digits on every team he has played for, including Barcelona. Since joining them in January 2016, he found the back of the net 21 times on 42 occasions, assisting another six. These numbers show just how vital he will be for the team's success on the international stage. However, Barcelona's opponents are way too strong to suggest a likely spot in the last 16.

The first matchday

March 15, 1am CET: Botafogo vs Estudiantes
March 15, 1:45am CET: Barcelona SC vs Atlético Nacional