Your quick guide: Copa Libertadores groups drawn

9 Comments

Europe did their bit yesterday. Today, it was South America’s turn.

Well, South America and Mexico. This time around, Liga MX not only has up to three teams in the group stage (one still to play in), one of them is likely closer to you (geographically) than your favorite Premier League team.

That team would be Xolos, or Club Tijuana. You know, the club that employs five Americans. The club that won the Mexican title. They got drawn into a group with the world champions.

That’s right, soccer fans in San Diego County. The team that holds claim to having the best team in the world is coming to your area (even if I’m completely exaggerating the validity of that claim). Get your trolley tickets now. You’re crossing at San Ysidro.

Over at The Score, Jerrad Peters has the post I would have done if I was near as good on South America as he is. So allow me to shameless cherry pick some of his group thoughts while I take you though the draw:

Group 1

Barcelona (Ecuador), Boca Juniors (Argentina), Nacional (Uruguay), Toluca (Mexico)

Boca and Nacional are titans. Together, they’ve won this competition nine times. It’s going to be difficult for either Barcelona (first place finishers in Ecuador’s last tournament) or Toluca (perhaps one tournament semi-wonders in Mexico) to break through. According to Peters, this is the Group of Death, and while I don’t see any of these quartets living up to that label, this has a claim to being the tournament’s toughest group.

Group 2

Libertad (Paraguay), Palmeiras (Brazil), Sporting Cristal (Peru), winner of Tigre (Argentina)-Deportivo Anzoategui (Venezuela)

If Tigre, forfeiters of the Sudamericana final, get through, they could win this group, though Palmeiras may still be the packet’s best team despite their recent relegation to the Brazilian second division. Their domestic cup win qualifies them for this championship, so … yay frivolous invites.

I’m not as high on Libertad’s chances as Peters, but if one of Tigre and Palmeiras shoot themselves in the foot, the Paraguayans will do through. So I guess that means I actually agree with Jerrad. Regardless, this is a weak packet.

Group 3

Atlético Mineiro (Brazil), Arsenal (Argentina), The Strongest (Bolivia), winner of São Paulo (Brazil)-Bolivar (Bolivia)

So Atlético Mineiro – arguably the best team in Brazil by the end of the Campeonato – should be grouped with São Paulo, recent winners of the Sudamericana. And there’s an Argentine team in here along with an experienced (if, likely, ineffective) Bolivian team? Yeah, this group’s a little strong.

Sucks for The Strongest: For the second year in a row, they’re likely going to be grouped with two Brazilian teams. Their Silver Linings Playbook: Three strong home matches before being eliminated.

But back to the Brazilians. Let’s just go through some names here, very quickly. Atlético will be a fan favorite because of the presence of Ronaldinho, but they also have former Manchester City strike Jo, the recently acquired Gilberto Silva, and one of the continent’s best keepers in Victor.

São Paulo, on the other hand, have the likes of Paulo Henrique Ganso, Luis Fabiano, Jadson, Paulo Assuncao, Denilson, and Lucio as their well-known calling cards. And their goalkeeper, Rogerio Ceni, has 52 career goals in the Brazilian league.

So those two teams are going through.

Group 4

Emelec (Ecuador), Peñarol (Uruguay), Vélez Sarsfield (Argentina), winner of Iquique (Chile)-León (Mexico)

No matter which of Iquiqui and León move through (I like the newly Rafa Marquez-toting León), this will be one of the competition’s deepest groups. Any of the teams could go through, though Peñarol and Vélez will probably be the favorites. Like Peters, I have my doubts about Vélez’s chances, though his doubts are actually more an admiration of Emelec than reservations about the Argentine champions.

Regardless, the gap between one and four is just not that big, and given Peñarol fell in an equally balanced (though more difficult) group last year (which they flamed out of), I can’t help but feel for the Uruguayans.

Group 5

Corinthians (Brazil), Millionarios (Columbia), San José (Bolivia), Tijuana (Mexico)

Peters astutely notes that this group means a lot of traveling for the world champions (did I mention that’s Corinthians). Two trips to northern South American countries plus another to the Mexico-U.S. border? Has any team racked up so many miles?

They’re still the favorites here. Millionarios – to whom Seattle Sounder Fredy Montero’s been thinly linked – will fight it would with Tijuana for the second spot. Given TJ’s never been in this competition before, it’s hard to predict how they’ll respond.

Group 6

Cerro Porteño (Paraguay), Real Garcilaso (Peru), Santa Fe (Colombia), winner of Deportes Tolima (Colombia)-César Vallejo (Peru)

The one group that makes Group 2 look strong. Cerro Porteño and Sante Fe will be the favorites, but in most other groups, they might not advance. There is no possible matchup of these five teams that will be the best game of a day’s competition. However, if one of these teams catches fire and racks up points, they could use the group’s weakness to leverage a high seed for the knockout round.

Group 7

Deportivo Lara (Venezuela), Newell’s Old Boys (Argentina), Universidad de Chile, winner of Olimpia (Paraguay)-Defensor Sporting (Uruguay)

One side of my brain: Newell’s Old Boys have the talent to get out of this group regardless of who comes out of the playoff.

Other side: They had trouble scoring goals in Argentina’s Inicial and were too often drawn (nine times in 19 games). That’s a bad combination for road games in Copa.

La U is going through regardless of how their transition from Jorge Sampaoli to Dario Franco progresses. Today, I’m picking Newell’s to join them, but if Peters is picking Defensor Sporting, know Argentina’s runners up are vulnerable.

Group 8

Caracas (Venezuela), Fluminense (Brazil), Huachipato (Chile), winner of Gremio (Brazil)-LDU Quito (Ecuador)

There’s going to be a divide between the group’s top two (Fluminense and the playoff winner) and the packet’s bottom half. Even within that playoff, a bolstered Gremio (third in this year’s Campeonato) should be favored, though insert cautions about Quito’s altitude here.

Even if the Ecuadorians advance, they should join Fluminense, a team that will look to push on from their Serie A title to compete for the Libertadores’ crown. Caracas and the rabbit track are just along for the ride.

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

[ MORE: Totti leaves future uncertain heading into final Roma match ]

That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Leave a comment

U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.

Alaves eyes upset of Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The final of the Copa del Rey pits Barcelona’s star power against a tiny Basque Country club whose biggest weapons are its grit and gnawing hunger for a taste of glory.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Win or lose, Alaves is savoring the cup final on Saturday as the perfect finish to its first season back in Spain’s topflight in an decade.

[ MORE: Three key battles ahead of Chelsea-Arsenal FA Cup final ]

But to have a chance of winning the first major trophy in its 96-year history, Alaves’ ragtag collection of journeymen has to be squeezed of every ounce of effort by coach Mauricio Pellegrino to upset the cup-holders led by Lionel Messi.

One statistic illustrates how daunting their task will be: Messi, all by himself, has scored exactly as many goals as the entire Alaves squad this season, with 53 across all competitions.

“We will need to play a very complete match to have a chance, but we are a team that always competes to the maximum,” said Pellegrino, who is completing a noteworthy first season with the club.

The final will be the last competitive match at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon Stadium. An exhibition match the next day will be its farewell before demolition.

The final will also be the last match for departing Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who could bow out with a third straight Copa del Rey.

Here are some reasons Alaves can believe in an upset for the ages:

DONE IT BEFORE

Alaves has already toppled Barcelona this season.

A shocking 2-1 victory at Camp Nou on Sept. 10 was Alaves’ first win since its return to the first division following 10 years in the second and third tiers.

That surprise victory set it on its way to overachieving all campaign. It reached the Copa del Rey final by defeating the more talented Celta Vigo in the semifinals, and finished the league in a meritorious ninth place.

The bad news is that Barcelona showed no mercy back in Vitoria, where Luis Suarez scored twice in a 6-0 rout.

NO SUAREZ

But Suarez won’t be available for Barcelona on Saturday, when he serves a one-game suspension after being sent off during the semifinals against Atletico Madrid.

Luis Enrique could start Paco Alcacer in his place up front alongside Messi and Neymar.

OLD AND YOUNG

Alaves is not devoid of talent.

The 19-year-old right back Theo Hernandez, who is playing on loan from Atletico, is drawing rave reviews and interest from European powerhouses, including Real Madrid.

Marcos Llorente, a 22-year-old Madrid reserve player also on loan, has impressed as a defensive midfielder.

Captain Manu Garcia, at 31, is the only player who has been with the team through its rise from the third tier in 2013.

“Our coaches are telling us that by working as a team just like we have all year, we have a chance to win,” Garcia said.

OH SO CLOSE

Alaves came ever so close to winning the 2001 UEFA Cup when it defied expectations in its first European campaign by reaching the final against Liverpool.

Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch great Johann Cruyff, scored late to level the thriller at 4-4 and force extra time, only for Alaves to succumb on an own goal by Delfi Geli.

“I want our fans to enjoy the day,” Garcia said. “I remember (the final in) Dortmund from when I was young. I have many memories of that day and that’s why I ask our fans to be proud of Alaves, and that they make the Calderon into our stadium because that is what we will need it to be.”