Copa Libertadores: Los Tres Paraguayos’ Historic Copa Libertadores Odyssey

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By Roberto Rojas/beIN SPORTS

Paraguay is not traditionally considered among the powerhouses of South American soccer on the basis of historic name-brand clubs or deep pockets. However, when the 2019 Copa Libertadores Round of 16 kicks off on Tuesday, the nation situated between Brazil and Argentina will very much be on equal footing with the big boys of CONMEBOL.

For the first time since the current group stage format was implemented in 2005 with eight groups of four teams, three Paraguayan sides – Olimpia, Cerro Porteño and Libertad – have made it to the Copa Libertadores Round of 16. That makes Paraguay the third-best represented nation in the Round of 16, trailing only Brazil’s six clubs and Argentina’s four.

Even more impressive, it continues a streak of 10 years with at least one Paraguayan club making it to the Round of 16 of South America’s biggest club competition.

 

Both are remarkable achievements for a nation where clubs don’t have the economic might of their neighbors.

Brazilian and Argentine sides have much more of a financial stronghold in CONMEBOL, allowing them to sign the best players in the continent, reinforce with veterans like Rafinha and Filipe Luis, and thus gives them much more of an advantage in coninental competition.

Still, all three Paraguayan sides that made it to this year’s Libertadores group stage won their groups and will now have the honor of playing the first leg away to their opponents before finishing off the tie at home in Paraguay.

Each of the three clubs boast different histories, but this year their runs have been built on similar mixtures of youth and experience, which should make all three Paraguayan sides formidable in this crucial stage of the Copa Libertadores.

Here is a look at how they got here, what makes them stand out and what to expect from them heading into their Round of 16 clashes.

 

Olimpia, King of Cups

 

The most successful Paraguayan club domestically and internationally, Olimpia are looking to capture their fourth Copa Libertadores title and their first since 2002. Boasting a squad that is filled with academy players, talented youngsters and seasoned veterans, Olimpia are looking to return to their past dominance that made them one of the giants of the continent.
 
Daniel Garnero’s team are also currently vying for their fourth consecutive league title in their native country, but it’s the Libertadores – the trophy that established them as Paraguay’s premier club – that will be their primary focus for the remainder of the year.

Olimpia are the only club to have reached a Libertadores final in every decade since the tournament’s inception in 1960, but Tuesday’s first leg marks their return to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2013. That was the same year they reached the final only to lose on penalties to Atletico Mineiro.

 

How They Got Here

In what was perhaps the most even group stage performance out of all the three Paraguayan sides, Olimpia struggled at the beginning of the tournament, drawing their first two games on the road at Godoy Cruz and Universidad de Concepción.
 
However, they picked up their momentum in the later matches and qualified as group winners with two wins, three draws, and one loss to see them finish with nine points, only above Godoy Cruz based on a difference of a single goal (+3 to +2).

What To Watch For (vs. Liga de Quito)

Finally back in the Round of 16, Olimpia will head to Quito to play the first leg 9,000 feet above sea level. The main core of Ganero’s squad remains the same from the group stage, with only the additions of Luis de la Cruz and Miguel Samudio standing out.
 
The players to watch on this side will be the reliable goalkeeper Alfredo Aguilar, midfielders Richard Ortiz and the breakout player for Paraguay during the Copa America: Richard Sanchez. Sanchez made his breakthrough with the national team by scoring on his first start against Argentina, which will definitely draw extra eyeballs to the 23-year-old.
 
Finally, Olimpia have the experience of Nestor Camacho as well as the all-time leading goalscorer of the Paraguay national team and captain Roque Santa Cruz upfront.

Santa Cruz returned to Paraguay to his boyhood club in 2016, following his European odyssey which had made him an ambassador for Paraguayans abroad.

Olimpia will similarly look to recapture the mystique of a club accustomed to playing these type of matches in the Copa Libertadores.

Cerro Porteño, Club of the People

For Olimpia’s bitter rivals Cerro Porteño, this year’s Libertadores presents another opportunity to escape the dark cloud that has haunted them for decades.

As the most successful side in terms of overall points to have never reached a final in this competition, the challenge for El Ciclon remains to reach the pinnacle of South America and finally earn some sort of bragging rights after years of taunting from their bitter rivals.
 
It will not be an easy task, however, as El Ciclon have changed managers since their last Libertadores match.

Fernando Jubero, a former La Masia manager who made his name in Paraguay managing the nation’s major clubs and managed El Ciclon during their group stage run, was sacked after failing to win the previous league campaign. Jubero was replaced by Miguel Angel Russo who managed Alianza Lima until failing to get the Peruvians into the knockouts. The Argentine manager brings loads of experience, having also won the Copa Libertadores when he managed Boca Juniors to their last title in 2007.

 

How They Got Here

The Paraguayan side with the best group-stage record out of the three, Cerro wrapped up Group E with four straight wins, before finishing off their last two matches with a loss and draw respectively. However, just like their bitter rivals, they finished top of their group with 13 points, level with second-place Nacional, but having a better goal difference to help them get the top seed.

What To Watch For (vs. San Lorenzo)

Cerro’s campaign has been driven by a mix of youth and experience, with European-tested players such as goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, defender Fernando Amorebieta and captain Nelson Haedo Valdez as well as youthful talent such as 21-year-old defender Santiago Arzamendia.

Valdez had never played in the Paraguayan first division prior to making the move to El Ciclon in 2017, spending more than a decade in Germany, Greece, Spain and the United States. Now he can finish out his career as a leader for his boyhood club.
 
It’ll be a battle of the two “El Ciclons” as San Lorenzo share the same kit colors and nickname in Argentina. The Argentine El Ciclon will aim to spoil Cerro Porteño’s party short of the final yet again, while the Paraguayans try to make it to their first Copa Libertadores quarterfinal since 2011.

Libertad, The Challenging Outsider

Finally, sharing the Libertadores spotlight with Paraguay’s two biggest clubs is Club Libertad, who have earned their claim as the third-biggest team in the country with recent success in the 21st century.
 
Thanks to the influence of former club president and eventual president of the nation Horacio Cartes, in this century alone, Libertad have captured 12 league titles out of a possible 31 and made consistent consistent performances in the Libertadores, going as far as the semifinals in 2006.

 

How They Got Here

Manager Leonel Alvarez took over the club in 2018 and led Libertad to qualify for the 2019 Copa Libertadores, where they had to endure two qualifying round ties before qualifying to the group stage.

It wouldn’t come without controversy however. After winning their first match at home in a 4-1 trashing over Universidad Católica, Alvarez was sacked by Libertad the following day due to disagreements with the club directors, meaning that Jose Chamot, who had never managed a top-flight club in his managerial career, took Alvarez’s position for the remainder of the Copa Libertadores.
 
The change didn’t affect the team much, as Libertad scored 11 goals to qualify as shock winners of Group H with 12 points, over 2017 champions Gremio who finished with 10.

What To Watch For (vs. Gremio)

Deja vu will indeed come again for the Paraguayans as they were drawn to take on their group stage rivals Gremio in the Round of 16, where they will seem to be underdogs against a Brazilian side led (for now) by Everton Soares, the breakout star of the Copa America.
 
However, in what has been a shared winning recipe for these three Paraguayan teams, Libertad are a side with experience as well as including an injection of youth. Iván Piris, Paulo Da Silva, Cristian Riveros and Oscar Cardozo – all of whom have played in Europe and for the national team – provide the veteran presence.

Cardozo is perhaps the most well-known name of the group, who returned to Paraguay in 2017 after stints in Greece, Turkey and Portugal where he is currently Benfica’s all-time foreign top goal scorer.

El Gumarelo are also buoyed by young talent such as 18-year-old Ivan Franco, who has been rumored to be drawing interest from the likes of PSG and Borussia Dortmund.

You can watch all three sides in action as the Copa Libertadores Round of 16 kicks off live on beIN SPORTS and streaming on beIN SPORTS CONNECT