Copa Libertadores 2013: Assessing Brazil's Challengers for the Title
The Copa Libertadores Second Round kicks off on Tuesday night as the biggest sides in South America begin their assault on the famously difficult continental trophy.
Given their considerable financial advantages, Brazilian sides will once more enter the competition as pre-tournament favourites and, with six entrants in 2013, the odds will once more be stacked heavily in favour of the country to supply the competition's eventual winner.
Brazil supplied winners for both of the continent's major trophies last year, and will be determined to stamp their authority with a third consecutive Libertadores title success.
Reigning champions Corinthians will be joined by Copa Sudamericana victors Sao Paulo and national title holders Fluminense and Palmeiras. The quartet will then be joined by both Gremio and Atletico Mineiro.
So, with the tournament about to get underway, let's take a look at Brazil's potential champions.
Of all the Brazilian teams in the competition, Palmeiras are perhaps the most difficult to assess.
They have changed much since their last meaningful competitive action, when they were relegated from the Brazilian top-flight last season, and there is still uncertainty over the final composition of their squad following the departure of star striker Hernan Barcos last week.
Barcos and winger Luan are out, as is influential central midfielder Marcos Assuncao who joined Santos earlier in the transfer window.
The good news is that the arrivals of goalkeeper Fernando Prass, full-back Ayrton, Porto striker Kleber and midfielder Charles should partially make up for the loss of their first-team stars.
They are weakened, though, and their group of Peruvian champions Sporting Cristal, Paraguayan Clausura champions Libertad and Argentine side Tigre will certainly not be easy.
They may have endured a 2012 from hell, besides the Copa do Brasil triumph that earned them qualification for the Libertadores, but it would be foolish to write Palmeiras off on account of their second-tier status.
They may not have the quality of squad that others can boast, but they could do some significant damage in a knockout tournament that they will have plenty of time to prepare for.
This, after all, is their only top-level challenge this season.
Atlético Mineiro pipped Grêmio to second place in the Brasileirão 2012 and will now have the opportunity to prove themselves in continental competition this year—beginning with a fixture against São Paulo this Wednesday.
The Minas Gerais side saw their form slip away somewhat in the latter stages of the 2012 season and will have to ensure that their side's lack of competitive matches does not hinder their chances in the early rounds of the group stage.
Atlético had a strong first eleven last season but found themselves coming up short when the stresses and strains of a long season finally took their toll. Since then, though, they have sought to strengthen all areas ahead of the 2013 season.
Diego Tardelli returns to Brazilian football to lead an attacking unit that will also include the talents of Ronaldinho and Bernard, while the likes of Alecsandro and Araújo will provide backup.
Gilberto Silva will come in to add experience to an already impressive defensive lineup, while newly signed midfielders Rosinei and Morais have both previously impressed for Corinthians.
Their challenge is, though, made tougher by a difficult group draw also featuring São Paulo, The Strongest and Arsenal di Sarandi.
Gremio, who finished third in last season's Brazilian Championship, were forced to qualify via the first round, and sneaked through to the group stages with a penalty-shootout victory over LDU Quito.
Given that those were the first two appearances of the season for many on the side, they will hope to improve on those performances in coming fixtures.
Since then, they have strengthened further. Napoli's Eduardo Vargas, veteran goalkeeper Dida and former Lyon defender Cris had already joined, and they have added Argentina striker Hernan Barcos and Arsenal left-back Andre Santos.
Now, under the management of Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Gremio finally look as though they may have a squad to make a significant impact. The return from injury of former Dynamo Kiev midfielder Facundo Bertoglio should also help add creativity.
There is a lot that still needs to click together for Gremio to mount a challenge for the Libertadores title, but they now have both the depth and quality to succeed—if they can pull things together before the knockout stages.
A group with Fluminense, Venezuelan side Caracas and Chilean side Huachipato represents a good opportunity to qualify for the business end of the competition.
Sao Paulo waltzed their way to the Copa Sudamericana final in 2012, with PSG-bound Lucas Moura inspiring the Tricolor to South America's second continental competition.
Now, though, the attention for Jadson, Luis Fabiano and co. turns to continental domination and the Copa Libertadores—a trophy the club last won in 2005.
Sao Paulo finished the 2012 season in fine fashion and quickly strengthened with the signing of Juventus centre-back Lucio, as well as pacy forwards Wallyson and Aloisio.
Quality and depth is not an issue for the Paulista side, who on their day can be a formidable unit. Instead, the issue must be whether they can maintain the form they have shown since the appointment of Ney Franco.
With Wellington and Denilson at the base of the midfield, Jadson and Ganso creating and Luis Fabiano leading the attack, there are few attacking units on a par on the continent.
Whether the side can adapt to include Ganso's different skill set to the departed Lucas may well be the key to their Copa Libertadores hopes.
Brazilian champions Fluminense were easily the best side in domestic competitions last season, and will hope to translate their success onto a continental stage.
Spearheaded by striker Fred, the Carioca giants have become masters of winning games when out of form and will hope that the quality will see them to important victories in the Libertadores.
Portugal international Deco, when fit, will be expected to supply the side's creative edge, while the young talents of forward Wellington Nem have made a significant impact on the Brasileirao over the past year.
While they may lack star names in defensive areas, Fluminense can call upon several of the unheralded performers of the domestic league.
Goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri, defender Gum and midfielder Jean all enjoyed outstanding seasons in 2012, and, with Argentine defender Fabian Monzon and veteran midfielder Felipe strengthening the ranks, there is plenty of talent in the squad.
They will no doubt be tough to beat once more and, with a recent culture of success, have plenty of know-how for when the competition heats up later in the year.
Reigning Libertadores and Club World Cup champions Corinthians will head into the 2013 competition as favourites once more, with success over Chelsea compounded by the signings of bigger names Gil, Renato Augusto and Alexandre Pato from European football.
Former AC Milan forward Pato was undoubtedly the biggest name of the trio, but it will be interesting to see how coach Tite can blend the players into his workmanlike Timao side.
Corinthians have become the envy of the entire continent despite their somewhat efficient playing style as they continue to build as a club both on and off the pitch.
At the Pacaembu, they can always rely upon vociferous support, and, thanks to their pragmatic approach, they have become adept at securing important away results.
As far as Corinthians and their loyal supporters are concerned, 2013 is simply a case of repeating old tricks.
Impressively, they have retained their key performers, and, thanks to their ever-increasing revenues, have added enough firepower to suggest that a retention could well be on the cards.