By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The group stages of the 2014 Copa Libertadores start this week, with six Brazilian teams entering the first round proper. Rio clubs Botafogo and Atlético-PR successfully negotiated preliminary rounds last week to progress into South America’s most important football prize.
Following their 4-1 aggregate victory over Ecuadorian club Deportivo Quito, Botafogo kick-off their group campaign tonight (Tuesday). The Alvinegro dispatched San Lorenzo of Argnetina 2-0, with goals from Ferreyra and Wallyson.
Flamengo meanwhile start the following evening (Wednesday) against Mexican club Léon. The Rubro-Negro had been riding well in the Campeonato Carioca until becoming undone against Fluminense on Saturday, but their focus in the first half of 2014 is undoubtedly the Copa Libertadores.
Fla have been handed a major boost ahead of the game. Former Barcelona and Mexico international Rafael Marques looks likely to miss the match through injury. He has already sat out the club’s last two matches with a thigh injury and is racing a race against the clock for Wednesday night. Flamengo left Rio for Mexico on Sunday night. Carlos Eduardo and Alecsandro, who missed Saturday’s Fla-Flu clássico, have flown with the rest of the squad.
Besides Rio clubs Botafogo and Flamengo, Brazil have four other entrants in the tournament. Minas clubs Atlético-MG and Cruzeiro, Porto Alegre outfit Grêmio and Atlético-PR will also be competing for the continent’s premier prize this year.
Atlético-MG, who won the tournament last year, kick-off their campaign against Zamora of Venezuela, with the help of a special returning face. Two-time World Player of the Year, and ex-Flamengo player, Ronaldinho Gaúcho should return to the side for Wednesday’s opener.
The 33-year-old has not played so far this season, having been serving a suspension after receiving a red card during the FIFA World Club Cup last December. During the club’s first training session in Venezuela it was Ronaldinho who drew the crowds, and his timely return should give his teammates enormous incentive to make a positive start in the competition.
Meanwhile, Brazilian champions Cruzeiro start against Real Garcilaso of Peru. Yet Marcelo Oliveira’s men won’t be able to count on striker Borges or holding midfielder Nilton, two fundamental pieces of their Brasileirão success last term.
The club have taken 22 players to Peru, including former Vasco defender Dedé and the best player in last year’s Campeonato Brasileiro, Everton Ribeiro, who has been linked with English champions Manchester United. After an excellent second half to 2013 – the club were crowned national champions four rounds before the end of the season – Cruzeiro will be hoping to make further progress in 2014.
On Thursday, Atlético-PR start at home against The Strongest of Bolivia. Atlético made it through to the group stages by the skin of their teeth, at the expense of Peru’s Sporting Cristal. Finally Grêmio, who finished runners-up in last year’s Brasileirão, travel to Uruguay to face Nacional. The pair have been drawn in Group 6 with Nacional Medellin of Colombia and Argentinians Newell’s Old Boys.
With six entrants Brazilian clubs have varying storylines. Atlético-MG are vying for a second consecutive title while Atlético-PR’s tale is one of success against the odds, qualifying at the expense of more historic clubs with larger resources. In Rio, Flamengo and Botafogo have had differing fortunes and attitudes to the Campeonato Carioca, but both will go all out for the Libertadores.