It's time for the busiest part of the world football calendar. While European leagues wind down and the UEFA Champions League knockout stages begin, football also resumes in the Americas. Qualifying started at the end of January, but Copa Libertadores proper finally kicks off on Tuesday.
Defending South American and world champions Corinthians enter the tournament as one of the big favorites, as hard as it is to repeat in the Libertadores. They'll be rivaled by Boca Juniors and Fluminense, who are expected to prioritize the continental championship over domestic competition in 2013. A number of solid dark horses lurk just behind them, and none of those three teams are so strong that an early knockout stage exit would be surprising.
Tuesday's slate features two excellent games, along with the potential debut of Fernando Gago for Velez and the first post-Sampaoli era Copa Libertadores game for Universidad de Chile. Wednesday's schedule has the best games, including a tough away test for Ronaldinho's Atletico Mineiro side.
Nacional vs. Barcelona
Tuesday, 5:15 p.m. ET
These two teams are the third and fourth favorites to advance out of the deepest group in this year's competition. Toluca and Boca Juniors have stronger squads than Nacional and Barcelona, but the pair meeting on Tuesday would be expected to advance out of almost every other group, save for 3 and 5. If Barcelona can stop Nacional from getting a home win, it might put the Uruguayan side in a hole they're unable to dig themselves out of.
Barcelona won the Ecuadorian title in December, and their squad is well-balanced between attack and defense, youth and experience, and foreign and domestic talent. Most of their Ecuadorian players have represented their country in internationals, and they have three of the country's top players in Frickson Erazo, Juan Carlos Paredes and Michael Arroyo.
Nacional are a much older team than Barcelona, and they'll be hoping that they can fight off the effects of aging for one more season. They have a talented young forward in Gonzalo Bueno, but Sebastian Abreu, Alvaro Recoba and Alexander Medina are all on the wrong side of 35. They'll be heavily dependent on star defender Andres Scotti -- also on the wrong side of 35 -- to continue to be one of their best players.
Emelec vs. Velez Sarsfield
Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Fernando Gago, who just arrived at Velez from Valencia to solidify their midfield, could make his club debut on Tuesday. The former Real Madrid and Boca Juniors man has become first choice for Argentina in recent months, and was an outrageous coup for Ricardo Gareca. The link he provides between the Velez defense and playmaker Federico Insua could be the difference between solid finishes and trophies for the team this season.
They're facing a tough test in Emelec, though the Ecuadorian side might not be as strong as they were in last year's competition. With Valencia so strong through the middle, they'll rely on tricky winger Marcos Caicedo, and they'll need their forwards to create their own chances to secure a win.
Universidad de Chile vs. Deportivo Lara
Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Not familiar with Deportivo Lara? I don't blame you. They've existed for less than 10 years, but assembled a team of veterans with plenty left in the tank to win the title in Venezuela last season. They have similar issues to Nacional, where they'll need to hope the age of their squad doesn't catch up with them.
La U aren't off to a terrific start in the Dario Franco era -- they got stomped 3-0 at home by Union Española on the weekend -- but they also rested a number of key players in that game. Time will tell if Franco's less high-octane, but still entertaining 3-4-3 and his current personnel can achieve anything approaching the success of the Jorge Sampaoli era.
Municipal Iquique vs. Peñarol
Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. ET
Why couldn't Wednesday's rather lame game overlap with Champions League, allowing this to be the late game? I don't understand schedules. Anyway, Iquique posted an impressive win on penalties over Club Leon to qualify for the Libertadores and don't look like pushovers. However, they will be underdogs, even at home, against a very solid Peñarol side. The Uruguayans are as talented as they were when they made a surprise run to the final in 2011, and are one of the tournament's best dark horse contenders.
Atletico Mineiro vs. Sao Paulo
Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET
If you watch one Copa Libertadores game this week, make it this one. While Corinthians and Fluminense stole the spotlight in Brazilian football last year, both of these clubs had excellent seasons and look like potential Libertadores contenders.
Lucas Moura has left Sao Paulo, along with Casemiro, but fellow young stars Ademilson, Rodrigo Caio and Rafael Toloi remain. Veteran stars Luis Fabiano and Rogerio Ceni are joined by new arrivals Lucio, Jadson and Paulo Henrique Ganso, helping to make up one of the most talented squads on the continent.
Atletico Mineiro don't have the same level of depth, but they do have Ronaldinho and an extremely strong first team. Veterans Gilberto Silva and Rosinei have joined up, and will solidify the midfield behind Ronaldinho and rising young star Bernard.
Boca Juniors vs. Toluca
Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET
The second best game of the round, even if Boca Juniors looked horrible for most of their first game of the Argentine Primera season and Toluca are off to a slow start in Liga MX. These are two talented sides and arguably the two favorites to get out of their group. Hopefully, Toluca is just saving their best for the Libertadores instead of experiencing a massive drop-off.
Boca have been the big news-makers in South American football this week after they announced the return of Juan Roman Riquelme. Last season, he looked set to leave Boca, either through retirement or signing for a new club. He flirted with both options, but ultimately decided to return to the club where he is an icon. He might not be fit enough to go 90 minutes against Toluca, but since 'running' hasn't been a huge part of his game for half a decade, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him suit up.
Real Garcilaso vs. Independiente Santa Fe
Wednesday, 9:15 p.m. ET
Don't know much about Real Garcilaso? That's okay, neither does anyone who isn't an expert on Peruvian football. They were founded four years ago, and have done brilliantly to ascend this quickly, but their best player left for a Spanish Segunda side in the winter. That should tell you quite a bit about where they're expected to finish in Group 6.
Santa Fe are one of the biggest teams in Colombian football, but they've been a sleeping giant for while. They're third favorites in the group, and will need to get off to a good start on Wednesday to feel like they have a chance to beat out their league-mates Deportes Tolima for a knockout stage place.
Newell's Old Boys vs. Olimpia
Thursday, 4:45 p.m. ET
Once again, the scheduling gods hate you. Arguably the best game of Thursday has some overlap with Europa League, for reasons unknown, while the 7 p.m. games are average. Newell's have become one of South America's top teams since Gerardo Martino took over the post, as he's helped them find a perfect balance between organization and attacking flair. They're co-favorites in Group 7 along with La U, but the biggest challenger to those two sides is Olimpia.
The Paraguayan side doesn't have the talent of Newell's or La U, but their qualifying victory over Defensor Sporting was extremely impressive and shows that they are unlikely to be pushovers. A point in Rosario would provide them with a massive boost.
Gremio vs. Huachipato
Thursday, 4:45 p.m. ET
Gremio are throwing the proverbial excrement at the wall and seeing what sticks. They've strengthened their team with a number of players who are seemingly Libertadores quality, but who are not in terrific form and who don't fit together in any obvious way. Andre Santos and Eduardo Vargas arrive on loan after failed stints in Europe, while Hernan Barcos has signed on from relegated -- but Libertadores participating -- Palmeiras. Ze Roberto is still kicking. This team makes no sense. They did, however, advance past LDU Quito in the playoff round to get to this point, getting through what was almost certainly their toughest possible playoff draw.
While Gremio are likely to get found out at some point in this competition, it probably won't be on Thursday. Chilean side Huachipato are no joke, but they're arguably the weakest of the Chilean sides in this competition, and will depend on making the most of their home games to get out of the group. Anything but a loss on the road against Gremio would be a big upset.
Palmeiras vs. Sporting Cristal
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET
This is almost certainly the least interesting match of the round. Palmeiras have retained some decent players following their relegation, but their boardroom and finances are in shambles and they're an entirely unpredictable entity at this point. Sporting Cristal do not have a deep team, but they do score a lot of goals. Neither team is particularly great and would get run out of a strong group. This is really only watchable for schadenfreude purposes.
The Strongest vs. Arsenal de Sarandi
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET
Anyone who doesn't think that "The Strongest" is the best team name in sports can get out right now. The Bolivian side isn't having a good season, but hopefully that's simply because they're so focused on the Libertadores. They're a tough out at home because La Paz is magic, but they'll definitely be the second best team on the pitch on Thursday. Arsenal are a solid team who have improved their squad over the last couple of transfer windows, and they might challenge the Brazilian sides to get out of Group 3. They'll need to win at altitude in Bolivia to do it, however.
Deportes Tolima vs. Cerro Porteño
Thursday, 9:15 p.m. ET
This Cerro Porteño side isn't anywhere near as boring and negative as the one that made the semifinal of this competition a couple of years ago, but you can still expect them to play for a draw on the road against a Deportes Tolima team that has a formidable attack. If either side can come away with all three points in this match, they could establish themselves as favorites in Group 6.