Copa Libertadores 2019: The favourites, dark horses and players to watch
The Copa Libertadores is arguably the most entertaining club competition in football, and the 2019 edition gets under way on Tuesday.
Less than three months has passed since River Plate overcame arch-rivals Boca Juniors in a dramatic Superclasico final that will be remembered for years to come – for good and bad reasons.
An attack on Boca's team bus as it made its way to El Monumental resulted in River losing the opportunity to host the second leg of the showpiece at home, with CONMEBOL controversially taking the game to Madrid instead.
The final will take place at a neutral venue again in 2019, with the Estadio Nacional in Santiago earmarked to stage the first one-off finale in the competition's history.
But who could make a run to the latter stages and who are the players to look out for in the tournament that never ceases to provide phenomenal theatre?
The reigning Brazilian champions have strengthened since winning their second title in three seasons in December, with the arrivals of Ricardo Goulart and Carlos Eduardo adding to an impressive attack that already featured Colombia international Miguel Borja and tricky winger Dudu.
Still a force to be reckoned with despite the departures of Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez and Jonatan Maidana, River will bid to become the first back-to-back champions since arch-rivals Boca in 2001. Retaining the services of coach Marcelo Gallardo might have been key to their chances of doing that.
9/12/2018: A un mes de la gloria eterna— River Plate (@CARPoficial) January 9, 2019
Hace 31 días, River derrotaba a Boca en Madrid y levantaba la Copa Libertadores más importante de todos los tiempos. #ElMásGr4ndeDeLaHistoria pic.twitter.com/s0e3qadrL1
Gustavo Alfaro took over from Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the wake of last year's final defeat, while a number of important players followed him out of the door, Wilmar Barrios, Pablo Perez and Lisandro Magallan chief among them. However, young attackers Sebastian Villa and Cristian Pavon and tenacious midfielder Nahitan Nandez remain, ensuring Boca will continue to be a threat.
Exciting new additions through the spine of the team in Uruguay midfielder Giorgian de Arrascaeta, ball-playing centre-back and former Barcelona target Rodrigo Caio, electric winger Vitinho and Brazil international Gabriel Barbosa make the Carioca giants an exciting prospect. Head coach Abel Braga led Internacional to the trophy in 2006.
THE DARK HORSES
Benat San Jose guided Catolica to the 2018 Chilean Primera title and former Ecuador boss Gustavo Quinteros will hope to continue his good work after the Spaniard was tempted away by Al-Nasr. However, they are in a tough Group H alongside Gremio, Libertad and Rosario Central.
The Colombian side had their best run in the Copa Sudamericana in 2018, only losing to Athletico Paranaense in the final after a penalty shoot-out. The hot and humid conditions in Barranquilla can often cause visiting teams problems and they have made an unbeaten start to the Primera A Apertura.
Having been drawn alongside Godoy Cruz, Universidad de Concepcion and Sporting Cristal, Olimpia should be able to advance to the latter stages with a decent seeding. They have plenty of experience in Dario Veron, Antolin Alcaraz and Roque Santa Cruz, while Nestor Camacho and Jorge Ortega offer a threat in front of goal.
THE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dario Benedetto (Boca)
Argentina international Benedetto returned from a string of serious injuries to spearhead Boca's push for the title in 2018, scoring five goals across the semi-final and showpiece. If he can stay fit, he has the experience to be a key component of another deep run.
Jarlan Barrera (Rosario Central)
The second cousin of Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama was highly sought when his Junior contract came to an end at the conclusion of last year and Central won the race for his signature. Barrera, 23, assisted eight goals and scored seven of his own in the Primera A last season.
| ¡ELEGIDO EL MEJOR GOL!— Club Junior FC (@JuniorClubSA) December 23, 2018
Nuestros hinchas votaron y eligieron el gol de Jarlan Barrera vs Rionegro (0-2), como el mejor gol de la campaña en la cual fuimos campeones de Colombia.
: Imagen cortesía Win Sports pic.twitter.com/MOxtZbR8M2
Lucas Silva (Cruzeiro)
Real Madrid loanee Silva is desperate to get his career back on track and prove he can still make the grade at the Santiago Bernabeu. Having sat on the bench for most of the two-legged final as Cruzeiro lifted the Copa do Brasil last year, he will be keen to establish himself as more of a central figure in the Libertadores.
Fernando Ovelar (Cerro Porteno)
Ovelar was only 14 years old when scored the opening goal in a 2-2 derby draw against Olimpia last November. A broken arm has stopped him featuring for Paraguay Under-17s and his club in 2019, but the teenager is certainly worth looking out for should he recover in time to make his Libertadores bow.
- Flamengo face San Jose in their opening Group D encounter. The Rubro-Negro have won just one away match in Bolivia in the Libertadores (D2 L3), a 2-1 victory over Jorge Wilstermann in 1981.
- Rosario Central have lost just three of their past 43 home games in the Libertadores (W28 D12).
- Zamora have lost 13 straight Libertadores matches, the worst streak of any team in the competition's history.
- Penarol have gone 14 away games without a win in the Libertadores, losing each of their past six - both of which are club records.