And so it begins. The Copa Libertadores got underway last night with the thrilling draw between Nacional and Barcelona, before Emelec and Universidad de Chile picked up home wins. The Brazilian challenge begins this evening, when Atlético-MG host São Paulo (big game klaxon) and Fluminense travel to Venezuela to face Caracas. Here's my take on how Brazil's six contenders shape up this year...
Coach: Gilson Kleina
Key players: Henrique, Souza, Wesley
Group 2 opponents: Libertad (PAR), Tigre (ARG), Sporting Cristal (PER)
Libertadores champions in 1999, the Verdão face an uphill task to make their mark on this year's edition. Having won the Brazilian Cup midway through 2012, Palmeiras' season fell apart, culminating in their relegation from Série A in November. A number of key players have since left, meaning that the squad, despite some shrewd budget signings (Ayrton, Kléber, Léo Gago), lacks that air of class. A protracted flirtation with Juan Román Riquelme threatened to change that, but negotiations came to nought – probably a good thing, given the potential cost of bringing the Argentine to São Paulo. If Palmeiras progress to the latter stages of the competition, coach Gilson Kleina will go down as a miracle worker.
Key players: Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Réver, Diego Tardelli
Group 3 opponents: São Paulo, Arsenal de Sarandí (ARG), The Strongest (BOL)
The surprise package of last season's Campeonato Brasileiro, the Galo embark on their first Libertadores campaign since 2000. They certainly boast the attacking talent to trouble any side; Ronaldinho Gaúcho is still a force to be reckoned with at this level, busy youngster Bernard and beanpole striker Jô provide ample support, and the returning Diego Tardelli will plunder plenty of goals. Crucial to their chances could be home advantage: the club has elected to snub the newly-renovated Mineirão in favour of the Estádio Independência, whose cramped, steep stands tend to create a more intimate – and intimidating – atmosphere.
Coach: Ney Franco
Key players: Lúcio, Luís Fabiano, Jádson
Group 3 opponents: Atlético Mineiro, Arsenal de Sarandí (ARG), The Strongest (BOL)
Winners of the Copa Sul-Americana in 2012, São Paulo look well placed to make the step up to the continent's premier competition this year. Theirs is a squad replete with experience: former seleção captain Lúcio join fellow veterans Rogério Ceni and Luís Fabiano to form a formidable spine. In midfield, a rejuvenated Denílson has formed a promising partnership with Wellington, allowing Jádson to focus on creative duties. Yet there are concerns for coach Ney Franco. The departure of Lucas has left the attack lopsided, whilst Paulo Henrique Ganso appears to be a square peg in a formation of round holes. The failure to sign another attacker – such as Edu Vargas, who was poached by Grêmio – could come back to haunt the Tricolor.
Key players: Paulinho, Paolo Guerrero, Cássio
Group 5 opponents: Millonarios (COL), San José (BOL), Tijuana (MEX)
Reigning Libertadores champions, the Timão have done what all great clubs do (and what all other clubs resent): strengthen after success. In have come Alexandre Pato, Renato Augusto and Gil – three players of unquestionable quality, although none is even guaranteed a starting place. Even more significant could be the form of Paolo Guerrero: the Peruvian has begun the year in startling form and will be relishing his opportunity to grace this competition for the first time. With coach Tite's star shining brighter than ever before, it would take a brave man to bet against Corinthians repeating their 2012 triumph.
Coach: Abel Braga
Key players: Fred, Wellington Nem, Diego Cavalieri
Group 8 opponents: Grêmio, Caracas (VEN), Huachipato (CHI)
The off-season passed relatively serenely at Laranjeiras, with no major transfers in or out. This, one senses, is exactly how they like it. Little has changed for the side that won the Brasileirão in 2012, meaning that the steady hand of coach Abel Braga will again be their greatest strength. Not that the Tricolor squad lacks star quality; in Fred they boast perhaps the most ruthless matador on the continent, while the zippy Wellington Nem and goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri also ooze class. Much will depend on whether players like Deco, Thiago Neves and Rafael Sóbis – undoubted talents, one and all – can stay fit and produce the goods on a regular basis.
Coach: Vanderlei Luxemburgo
Key players: Elano, Welliton, Hernán Barcos
Group 8 opponents: Fluminense, Caracas (VEN), Huachipato (CHI)
Until just a few weeks ago, Grêmio unlikely to make waves in this season's competition. While Vanderlei Luxemburgo could count on some solid performers – Elano, Werley and Zé Roberto were especially impressive in 2012 – the Porto Alegre side appeared to lack the sprinkling of attacking quality that separates good sides and great ones. But an astonishing transfer blitz has changed all that. In have come three forwards of the highest calibre: Hernán 'El Pirata' Barcos (Palmeiras), Edu Vargas (Napoli), Welliton (Spartak Moscow). How Luxa plans to accommodate that trio is anyone's guess, particularly given that Marcelo Moreno and Kléber are (at time of writing, at least), still at the club. Expect fireworks.