South America’s flagship competition, the Copa Libertadores, is up and running for another season with the group stages kicking off this week. 32 of Latin America’s finest will compete to succeed Santos as champions, and thanks to the increasing strength of the Brazilian economy and the country’s increasing ability to keep hold of and attract their finest countrymen, Brazil is once considered the trophy’s most likely destination come the final in July.
Here, Just Football’s Brazilian football correspondent Paulo Freitas offers a rundown of the systems, the stars and the storylines of the Brazilian teams competing this year:
Brazilian champions Corinthians are coached by Tite and play in a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Alex and Douglas as the attacking midfielders, and Liédson as the main striker.
Corinthians, unlike their rivals Palmeiras, Santos and São Paulo, have never won Copa Libertadores, which makes winning the competition a major obsession.
The chances of winning the title this year are good, as none of the first team players left after the Brasileirão and the squad has been strengthened with the signing of talented Grêmio midfielder Douglas.
Flamengo are coached by former South African manager Joel Santana, who recently replaced Vanderlei Luxemburgo. His teams tend to play in a typical 4-2-2-2 formation, with emphasis on having a strong defence first.
Ronaldinho Gaúcho is the most famous player in the squad, but his impact on the pitch is not always proportional to his reputation. Goalkeeper Felipe and newly signed forward Vágner Love are the team’s key players. Léo Moura, an attacking right-back, is also an important player, although he is showing signs of decline.
Flamengo hope to win the title, but it is more likely they fail to go farther than the quarter-finals or maybe semifinals, as the squad is not as strong as those of Brazilian rivals.
As like most of the other Brazilian teams, Fluminense also play in a 4-2-2-2 formation. The team are coached by experienced manager Abel Braga, who won Libertadores in 2006, when he was coaching Internacional.
Deco is one of Flu’s key players; he has been experiencing a revival since last year. Fluminense can also count with Fred, one of the best Brazilian strikers nowadays and frequently called up for the national team. Thiago Neves recently joined the club and is expected to be a major influence from the midfield. This is his third spell at Fluminense, and he was part of the Flu team that were beaten by LDU in the 2008 final.
Fluminense thus have an experienced squad led by a manager that knows the competition well. They are a major title contender.
The 2006 champions are coached by Dorival Júnior, a manager that likes to emphasize attacking football, which nowadays is not so common in Brazil. His team too play in a 4-2-2-2 formation.
Internacional are defensively weak, with unreliable goalkeepers and aging defenders, but the attacking players are among the best in Brazil. The midfield include Under-20 World Cup champion Oscar and famous Argentine player Andrés D’Alessandro, who recently refused a move to Shanghai Shenhua. They are in charge of feeding powerful and high rated striker Leandro Damião, who is already a regular member of Brazil’s national team.
The Colorado are among the biggest title contenders, despite their defence, and their four Argentine players – Mario Bolatti, D’Alessandro, Jesus Dátolo and Pablo Guiñazú. provide a major advantage over their Brazilian rivals due to their vast South American football experience.
The current Libertadores holders are coached by Muricy Ramalho, who is widely regarded as Brazil’s best manager. The team play in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Adriano, Arouca and Elano in charge of defensive tasks in midfield, while Paulo Henrique Ganso is the only attacking midfielder.
Ganso, if he can avoid injuries, is a key player for Santos, being the only creative player in midfield. Neymar is naturally the most important player in the squad, and the team will work to take as much advantage of his talent as possible. Young goalkeeper Rafael saved Santos many times in Libertadores 2011 and is expected to do the same this year.
As like Internacional, Santos have a fairly weak defence, but with the attacking players they have and the experience acquired last year, the title is well within reach.
Cristóvão Borges is Vasco’s current manager, as Ricardo Gomes is still recovering from a stroke. His team too play in a 4-2-2-2 formation.
Vasco’s most important player is young and tall Dedé, who is already deemed one one of the best Brazilian centre-backs. Experienced goalkeeper Fernando Prass and former Lyon midfielder Juninho Pernambucano are other key players.
As like Flamengo, the Cruzmaltino should hope to reach the quarter-finals or perhaps the semifinals. The hindrance being however that Vasco’s squad lack depth and, Dedé aside, also lack top class players.