BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Four former champions are facing stiff tests to reach the group stage of the Copa Libertadores, Latin America’s most important club competition.
Six first-leg matches are set for this week, followed by the second legs next week, with the survivors advancing to the 32-team group stage. Group play starts next month.
Former champions Once Caldas of Colombia and Brazil’s Internacional meet each other, while five-time winner Penarol of Uruguay takes on Venezuela’s Caracas, and ex-titleholder Flamengo of Brazil plays Real Potosi of Bolivia.
The other three matchups pits Peru’s Sport Huancayo against Arsenal of Argentina, UANL Tigres of Mexico versus Union Espanola of Chile and Libertad of Paraguay with Ecuador side El Nacional.
Once Caldas and Internacional meet on Wednesday in Brazil. Inter won the title in 2006 and 2010 and Once Caldas is the 2004 champion.
Penarol hasn’t won the title since 1987 and will be at home on Thursday against Caracas. Uruguay’s national club is the dominant power in South America, and Penarol will attempt to add to the tiny country’s football pride.
Flamengo, which won in 1981, visits Real Potosi on Wednesday.
In the other three matches, Arsenal, Union Espanola and El Nacional are at home for the first leg.
The six surviving teams will be placed into one of six available groups. Groups 6 and 7 are already complete, meaning they will enter Groups 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 8.
Internacional will be a slight favourite to advance against Once Caldas. Internacional was ousted last year in the round of 16 by Penarol. The winner goes into Group 1 with Santos, Juan Aurich and The Strongest.
Penarol lost the final last year to Santos and its star striker Neymar. The team hasn’t been playing well and Caracas could be a difficult opponent. The winner will go into Group 8 with Godoy Cruz, Atletico Nacional and Universidad de Chile.
Flamengo could have difficulty with the altitude in Bolivia but the Rio de Janeiro club should advance. The victor will move into Group 2 with Olimpia, Emelec and Lanus.
Arsenal and Sport Huancayo appear to be very evenly matched, even though this will be the Peruvian club’s first appearance in the tournament. The winner will receive a tough Group 4 containing Boca Juniors, Fluminense and Zamora.
Mexican side Tigres will be favoured to overcome Chilean club Union Espanola. The winner joins Universidad Catolica, Junior and Bolivar in Group 3.
El Nacional of Ecuador and Libertad are well matched, and the winner goes into Group 5 with Uruguay’s El Nacional, Alianza Lima and Vasco da Gama.