Boca return, Velez and La U lead pack
In Buenos Aires, the humidity is stultifying and Tuesday night brought an immense thunderstorm that will at least break it and make the city bearable to live in for a couple of days before temperatures start climbing again. The timing was fantastic, because that storm came on a perfect night to stay indoors in front of the television; a midweek evening of football starting at 6:30 and carrying on until after midnight. Yes, folks, the Copa Libertadores is back.
This year's edition is going to see one of the more determined - and realistic - attempts that we've seen for a while to retain the trophy, thanks to Santos retaining the core of their side and, most crucially, Neymar and Ganso (club president Luis Álvaro Ribeiro rejecting a bid from Porto in January for the latter before telling the press "It was comical. I think they must have missed off a zero on the offer"). They'll certainly lead the charge in a competition which is expected, once again, to be dominated by Brazilian clubs.
Internacional, Flamengo, Fluminense, Vasco da Gama and Corinthians are the other Brazilian competitors, with the six teams spread over five of the competition's eight groups (Santos and Inter are in the same group). All are among the favourites to win their groups, though Fluminense and Vasco have already started unconvincingly.
Flu got a 1-0 win over Argentine side Arsenal de Sarandi in Rio on Tuesday night, in a match which saw Flu play poorly, and have two men sent off to Arsenal's one red card. Vasco, on Wednesday, lost 2-1 at home to Nacional of Uruguay, who were semi-finalists three years ago. Of the Brazilian clubs Corinthians, especially, will feel they have a point to prove; last year they went out in the qualifying round to Colombia's Deportes Tolima, and the vitriol of their fans' reaction was said to be one of the factors which pushed the great Ronaldo into retirement, although he denied it .
Both Santos and Inter - and Juan Aurich, the Peruvian side who join them in Group 1 - will have a high-altitude trip to the Bolivian club who have one of my favourite monikers in world football, The Strongest (yes, really). That might make that group a little more interesting than it otherwise looks, and is just one reminder than the huge variety of conditions in the Copa - not to mention the enormous distances required for away trips - is often a factor. Given the strength of their domestic league, though, the Brazilians remain the ones to beat in the eyes of most of the rest of the region.
That's not to say there aren't challengers, though. Velez Sarsfield won one of last year's two Argentine championships, reached the semi-finals in both the Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana, and like Santos have kept the core of their team together throughout that time. Those they've been forced to offload, such as Santiago Silva and Ricky Álvarez, they have replaced very well. They've been impressive for a number of years now, and stand as good a chance of breaking through the glut of Brazilian frontrunners as anyone.
Another side who'll be good ones to watch are Universidad de Chile, who won the Copa Sudamericana (the continent's second tier continental trophy) in spectacular style in December, earning from many pundits the unofficial title of most entertaining team in South America. Eduardo Vargas scored eleven times during that tournament before being transferred to Napoli, and his replacement, the Peruvian Raúl Ruidíaz ('the Peruvian Messi', according to some in his homeland), has already had a good start to life at his new club. If they can carry their form over they'll be a real threat.
Of course, there's one club's name which has loomed like an elephant in the room over all other discussion of the principal candidates for the trophy so far. Because 2012 marks the return to South American football's top table, after three years, of Boca Juniors, the second most successful club in the history of the Copa Libertadores (they've won six, one behind fellow Argentines Independiente) and the side who, a decade ago, were dominating the continent.
It's fair to say that Boca weren't among the teams challenging Universidad de Chile for the unofficial 'most entertaining side' award last year, but what they were, for the last ten matches of the Torneo Clausura and then throughout the nineteen of the Torneo Apertura - which they won in December - was unbeatable. A draw (and subsequent penalty shootout win) in a new competition for this season, the Copa Argentina, means Boca are now thirty competitive matches without defeat, and they conceded fewer than once every three matches during their triumphant Apertura title run.
They have added the striker Velez Sarsfield lost to Fiorentina on the last day of last year's transfer window, Santiago Silva, and the Uruguayan has been bought solely with this year's Copa Libertadores in mind; for the rest of 2011-12, he's ineligible domestically since he's already been registered for two other clubs with FIFA in the current season. He brings proven pedigree at South American level, even if his spell with La Viola wasn't what he'd hoped for (he scored one goal for them in his six months in Florence, from the penalty spot). If Juan Roman Riquelme can stay fit, the combination could be deadly, when combined with that unshakable defence.
Asking Boca to go all the way immediately after their return to the competition is a lot, but the psychological hold they have over many sides, and certainly the press, in Brazil remains huge. They're in Fluminense's group, so the reaction to their performances there will be clearly visible from an early stage.
Whether Boca are really as good as everyone fears or not, Velez and Universidad de Chile, among others, ensure there is strength in depth in this year's Copa. If Santos are to retain their trophy, they'll have a fight on their hands.