The Battle For South America’s Most-Coveted Club Prize Begins
By Luca Galvao – LA Soccer Press /
The calendar for the tournament to decide of South America’s most coveted footballing prize also has had to make some adjustments because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under normal circumstances, the qualifying stages of the Libertadores would occur from January to late February. But last season’s final was pushed back and played only 10 weeks ago on January 30, so some changes to this year’s tournament were expected.
The draw for this season’s group stage took place at CONMEBOL headquarters on April 9 in Paraguay.
The groups are as follows:
Group A – Palmeiras (Bra), Defensa y Justicia (Arg), Universitario (Per), Winner G2
Group B – Olimpia (Par), Internacional (Bra), Deportivo Táchira (Ven), Always Ready (Bol)
Group C – Boca Juniors (Arg), Barcelona (Ecu), The Strongest (Bol), Winner G4
Group D – River Plate (Arg), Santa Fe (Col), Fluminense (Bra), Winner G3
Group E – São Paulo (Bra), Racing Club (Arg), Sporting Cristal (Per), Rentistas (Uru)
Group G – Flamengo (Bra), LDU Quito (Ecu), Vélez Sarsfield (Arg), Unión La Calera (Chi)
Group H – Cerro Porteno (Par), Atlético Mineiro (Bra), America de Cali (Col), Deportivo La Guaira (Ven)
River Plate (ARG)
With club legend Marcelo Gallardo (pictured) entering his 7th season in charge of River, Los millonarios are set for another deep run in the Copa Libertadores. Following a tragic relegation at the beginning of the previous decade, River Plate went on to become the team of the 2010s in South American football. Gallardo’s team is the only team to be featured in the previous four semi-finals of the competition. River has won the Libertadores twice in the last
six years, as well as three Recopas in that period and a Copa Sudamericana title in 2014. Six international trophies in seven years are no small feat.
Since last season’s semi-finals exit, River Plate added some young talent to their team in 23-year-old center-back Hector Martinez and 24-year-old striker Augustin Fontana. As well as resigning ex-club captain Jonatan Maidana from Mexico’s Toluca. However, River did lose their star midfielder Nacho Fernandez to Atletico Mineiro. Keep an eye out for River Plate because they show no signs of slowing down.
Boca Juniors (ARG)
Semi-finalist in the past two seasons and runners-up in 2018, Boca Juniors has only one goal in mind for the 2021 Copa Libertadores: the title.
The second most successful team in the history of the tournament last lifted the trophy in 2007. Winning the title again would mean Boca is tying their local rivals Independiente, with seven Libertadores titles each.
Boca has already added some new players to their squad: center-forward Franco Soldano returning from Greece, ex-Man United full-back Marcos Rojo, midfielder Edwin Cardona from Mexico’s Club Tijuana, and the return of Cristian Pavon, who had been loaned to the LA Galaxy.
Furthermore, some big names like Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani and Palmeiras’ Felipe Melo are also circulating the Argentine press as possible reinforcements for Boca’s season.
However, their offseason has not gone without the loss of some players. Boca lost two key players to Minnesota United (MLS), as 24-year-old midfielder Emanuel Reynoso and veteran forward Ramon Abila both made a move to the MLS for this season.
The reigning champions aim to defend their title. Palmeiras have had the best campaign of any team on the group stage for the previous three seasons, a record for the competition. Palmeiras will hope to add to that record in the coming months.
O verdão was not seen as one of the favorites for last season before reaching the title. Palmeiras appointed a little-known, young Portuguese coach who still hadn’t won his first title as a professional manager. That, plus a team filled with rookies in their first professional season.
However, the young coach got his first silverware, and Palmeiras, until the present moment, has managed to hold onto all of its young talents. Furthermore, Palmeiras also added defensive midfielder Danilo Barbosa on loan from Nice.
Champions in 2019, Flamengo were favorites for a repeat last season. However, a surprise upset in the round of 16 at the hands of Racing Club wasn’t in the team’s plans.
Despite their early exit in the Libertadores, Flamengo went on to win the Brasileirão in the last matchday of the season, proving that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
This season, Flamengo will be eager for another deep run in the competition. To do that, Flamengo will first have to get past a tricky group, featuring two other previous Libertadores champions: LDU Quito and Velez Sarsfield.
THE DARK HORSES:
Atletico Mineiro (BRA)
Possibly the team that most improved during the offseason, Atletico Mineiro added some serious depth to their squad. Following a disappointing and trophyless season with famous Argentinian manager Jorge Sampaoli, O Galo decided to welcome back last season’s runner-up manager and club legend, Cuca.
Furthermore, Atletico are also betting on their veteran acquisitions for the season: ex-Tigres Eduardo Vargas and ex-River Plate Ignacio Fernández. And the most talked-about signing of the Brazilian season, the return of Hulk from the Chinese Super League.
Finishing third in last season’s Brasileirão, Atletico will also have their eyes on the league title. A trophy they’ve only lifted once, in 1971.
Reigning Ecuadorian champions, Barcelona de Guayaquil has been one of the reasons for the improvement of Ecuadorian football in the past years.
Featured more prominently in the knockout stages of the competitions, well-run Ecuadorian clubs such as Barcelona, LDU, and Emelec are starting to create a name for themselves on the continental stage.
Since last season, Barcelona added players such as Gonzalo Mastriani, Leonel Quinonez, Jefferson Orejuela, Sergio Lopez to their squad.
Ecuador’s most popular team will hope to make it at least to the round of 16, but don’t be surprised if they make it further than that during this season’s competition.
Galvao studies kinesiology at CSU Northridge. He writes about South American futbol for L.A. Soccer Press.