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


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