20 Best Players to Watch Out For at the Copa Libertadores
The Copa Libertadores unfortunately does not get as much press attention as it deserves. But the tournament that unites the continent's best clubs is so much more than, as some dub it in Europe, "South America's Champions League." It is an historic and hyper-competitive competition in its own right.
Over the next six months, the region's finest talents will be on display. Here are 20 of the best, taken from Bolivia to Brazil.
Some names will be instantly familiar to European eyes, while others could be revelations. But all 20 deserve to be followed with the closest of attention over the course of the tournament.
20. Pablo Escobar
Unfortunate namesakes aside, Pablo Escobar's virtuoso skills deserve the utmost recognition. The 35-year-old is a legend of Bolivian football, and the Paraguay native even chose to take up the nationality of his adopted nation in order to represent the Verde internationally.
Escobar is equipped with outrageous shooting talent, which he uses from open play and set-pieces. The man they call the Condor of the Altiplano is a formidable opponent, and one of the greats of contemporary Bolivian football.
19. Omar Perez
While the Argentine stars who play in Spain, England and Italy grab most of the headlines, the nation's football exports go much deeper. Many South American giants have idols who have come straight from the land of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez; a case in point is Santa Fe superstar Omar Perez.
The 32-year-old playmaker has something reminiscent of Juan Roman Riquelme in his upright, elegant treatment of the ball. In five years in Bogota with Santa Fe, he has become a legend, scoring regularly and rising to the rank of club captain.
Perez already possesses two Copa Libertadores medals from his youth at Boca Juniors, and he has the drive and heart to make Santa Fe contenders in 2014.
18. Santiago Silva
Everything about Santiago Silva screams personality. The shaven head, hulking physique, the no-nonsense playing style and elaborate celebrations; the former Velez and Boca Juniors hit man is a force to be reckoned with on the football pitch.
The Uruguayan loves to get mixed up in the heavy stuff, and in the air he is a formidable opponent. But that brute strength hides a player with ample skill on the ball and who rarely errs in front of the net. Three Primera Division top scorer awards, and four titles in as many years with as many teams, tells the story of an ultra-competitive star who loves to be on the winning side.
17. Ignacio Piatti
Among Argentina's traditional "big five" of Boca, River, San Lorenzo, Racing and Independiente, San Lorenzo stand out as the only member not to have lifted the Copa Libertadores. Talismanic playmaker Ignacio Piatti has more chance than most of ending that dismal record and giving the Cuervo something to celebrate in 2014.
Piatti is adept at playing on either the right or in the centre of midfield and provides a vital link to the San Lorenzo attack in their habitual 4-2-3-1 set-up. Alongside veteran No. 10 Leandro Romagnoli and young hopeful Angel Correa, Piatti forms a creative engine that is the envy of much of the continent.
16. Wilder Medina
Some players are just born to put the ball in the back of the net. Santa Fe star Wilder Medina is one of those men, and the 32-year-old striker will spearhead the club's campaign from the front as he looks to add to the four goals he netted in last year's Libertadores.
It has not been an easy ride for Medina, who received a one-year ban in 2011 for marijuana and cocaine abuse and subsequently confessed his drug addictions, as reported by El Espectador (in Spanish). But his talent is plain to see, and after a successful recovery he has re-established himself as one of South America's most potent scorers.
15. Hector Canteros
Velez midfielder Hector Canteros in 2011 first burst onto the scene with a commanding performance against Brazil, during a match arranged between domestic-based players from both nations. A subsequent move to Europe did not go quite as planned for the star, but he is back in Liniers and desperate to prove his mettle.
Still only 24, Canteros is nevertheless an old head in a Fortin line-up dominated by youngsters. His strength and creativity in midfield, and partnership with Mauro Zarate up front, will be vital to Velez's attempts to triumph in South America.
14. Nicolas Otamendi
Nicolas Otamendi is one of three players on this list who came from the Velez Sarsfield youth set-up, a testament to the coaching at the Buenos Aires club. His move to Atletico Mineiro was one of the bombshells of the transfer window and full of promise.
While many remember Otamendi from his floundering performance against Germany in 2010, the versatile defender has improved immeasurably and is looking to push his way into the World Cup. A successful Libertadores campaign with the defending champions would definitely be a step in the right direction.
13. Rudy Cardozo
Out of all the leagues in South America, Bolivian football receives the least exposure. But in the Libertadores, La Paz clubs like Bolivar have the advantage of nose bleed-inducing altitude on their side; as well as hidden gems such as midfielder Rudy Cardozo.
At just 24, Cardozo is already a veteran of Copa campaigns and has racked up 27 appearances with the Bolivia senior team. He is a midfielder with an excellent range of passing, with the added secret weapon of a fearsome shot that has helped inflate his highlight reel.
12. Gabriel Heinze
Success has followed Gabriel Heinze throughout his career. Now enjoying an Indian summer with boyhood heroes Newell's Old Boys, the 35-year-old defender is keen to add yet more silverware to his collection.
Heinze was tempted to retire following the Lepra's second-placed finish in the 2013 Inicial. But the ex-Manchester United, Real Madrid and Roma star eventually stayed on for one more season, driven by the prospect of lifting the Copa Libertadores.
The man who has been crowned champion in four countries would love to add a continental trophy to the list before taking a well-deserved rest.
11. Marcelo Moreno
Powerful striker Marcelo Moreno is a player who transcends national borders. He is an idol for the Bolivian national team, but thanks to a father born in Brazil, the forward has spent the vast majority of his career starring for several teams in Serie A.
2014 will see Moreno line up for Belo Horizonte giants and national champions Cruzeiro, one of the favourites to lift the Libertadores. The player's first spell with the club was spectacular, and if he can repeat that same form Cruzeiro have every chance of going far in the competition.
10. Alvaro Recoba
Alvaro "El Chino" Recoba is still going, and he is thriving in his native Uruguay. Even at the grand old age of 37, Recoba has the ability to turn a game with a flick of his left foot.
The ex-Inter star helped Nacional to the title in 2011/12 with the only goal in the championship game, a wonderful strike against Defensor Sporting. Moments such as that have summed up Recoba since returning to Montevideo.
He may not have the legs to play the full 90 minutes at times, but in short bursts or coming off the bench, El Chino is a fearsome prospect for any defence.
With Julio Cesar struggling for regular first-team action, a host of Brazilian goalkeepers are pressuring the Toronto FC man for the No. 1 shirt at the 2014 World Cup. Towering Botafogo stopper Jefferson is perhaps the best-placed of all the hopefuls to usurp Cesar and represent his nation.
The 31-year-old keeper is an intimidating presence between the posts, and uses his 6'3" frame to throw himself across the goal. Jefferson has conceded just one goal in the three games he has played so far in the Copa, and with two consecutive clean sheets it is clear that he will be a vital presence for the Rio club.
Having made a name for himself as a powerful centre-back with Vasco, Dede was expected by almost the entire football world to try his fortunes in Europe. In a decision every bit as smart as those he makes on the pitch, the 25-year-old opted to stay in his home nation with a move to Cruzeiro.
Dede's faith was vindicated as the Belo Horizonte side romped to the 2013 Brasileirao title. With the towering defender dominating at the back, the team will begin the Libertadores as one of the favourites to triumph.
7. Jose Rojas
Universidad de Chile defender Jose Rojas may not be the flashiest player around, but he has one excellent trait that sets him apart from his peers. His loyalty to the Chilean giants is almost unmatched in South American football, making him a giant in the U ranks.
A brief loan spell with Independiente aside, Rojas has played his entire career for Universidad; racking up more than 400 career appearances in the blue shirt since 2003. His flexibility and natural talent on the ball made him a crucial part of Jorge Sampaoli's wonderful U side of 2011, with form that has since made him a regular in the Chile side.
It is, of course, risky to judge a player from his first few appearances in any given competition. If Botafogo's Wallyson keeps up his current form, however, he could well be the best performer of the entire Copa Libertadores.
The 25-year-old striker smashed a hat-trick to destroy Deportivo Quito in the preliminary round and took his tally to four in three games on Tuesday in scoring the second against San Lorenzo. Quick, skillful and willing to shoot from across the pitch, Wallyson means business in 2014.
5. Ever Banega
It was the biggest coup of the Argentine transfer window. Keen to get regular playing time under his belt ahead of Brazil 2014, Valencia's Ever Banega opted for a move to Rosario and local powerhouses Newell's Old Boys, as reported by Yahoo Sports.
The central midfielder has been held back by a series of unfortunate injuries in the past few years. But if he can stay in good health, and with quality around him such as Gabi Heinze, Maxi Rodriguez and David Trezeguet, the Copa Libertadores could prove to be Banega's perfect stage.
Elano's presence in the Brazilian top-flight is just one more example of the strength of the domestic game in the World Cup host nation. With Santos, Gremio and now Flamengo, the stylish midfielder is one of the most proficient passers of the ball around and already has one Libertadores gong to his name.
The 32-year-old was the cultured foil to Neymar's electric scoring during Santos' 2011 triumph, and with the World Cup just months away, a similar Copa run could put Elano back in the spotlight just in time.
3. Mauro Zarate
One of 2013's biggest surprises was seeing Mauro Zarate return to first club Velez Sarsfield, at the comparatively young age of 26. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the former Lazio and Inter hit man is a player of breathtaking talent.
Zarate's partnership up front with Lucas Pratto last season helped a relatively inexperienced Fortin to fight for the title right up to the last day of the campaign. If not for injuries, he could have had an even greater impact; Velez will be hoping he stays fit and leads the club's creative charge across South America.
2. Maxi Rodriguez
The former Liverpool player has been nothing short of immense since rejoining Newell's Old Boys in 2012. Entering a team fighting against relegation, his talents combined with the astute coaching of Gerardo Martino helped the Rosario giants finish second in his first season, going one better to lift the 2013 Final in June.
Now, the 33-year-old midfielder who is also an adept attacker has another chance to go for Libertadores glory. Newell's' run last year was ended in agonising circumstances by Atletico Mineiro, but they will start as one of the favourites for 2014.
What more needs to be said about the Brazilian legend? Ronaldinho may be out of the public spotlight a little, playing for Atletico Mineiro, but he is still the same virtuoso talent that lit up the likes of Barcelona and Milan for years, as well as the national team.
The playmaker's skills were vital for the champions of the Copa Libertadores last year, as together with Jo and Diego Tardelli he led South America's defences a merry dance. At the age of 33, Ronaldinho still has plenty in the tank to lead the Galo in their attempts to defend the title.