With the Copa Libertadores Group Stage fast approaching, the only two Uruguayan teams remaining in the competition – following Defensor Sporting’s defeat to Olimpia in the first round – are the two “Grandes”: Penarol and Nacional.
With five and three continental titles respectively, they certainly have pedigree in the competition - with Nacional having won more points than anyone else in the tournament’s history, closely followed by los Carboneros.
Their reality, though, has changed since the last time they lifted the trophy –Nacional in 1998 and Peñarol in 1987. Both have since struggled to reach the final stages of the competition, the only exception being the miraculous 2011 tournament that saw Penarol lose out to Neymar’s Santos in the final.
This year the Montevideo giants have targeted the Libertadores as their biggest goal, though both are also attempting to compete domestically. Nacional seek their third league championship in a row, while Peñarol aim to stop that streak by claiming what would be only their third Uruguayan title of the 21st century.
And so the teams have brought reinforcements in the hopes of being able to fight on both fronts, something that has been a huge challenge for Uruguayan clubs. It’s hard to see anyone in the last two decades who has done well both domestically as internationally.
Nacional appear to have bought better players. The likes of Sebastian Abreu, Ivan Alonso, Juan Albin, former Stoke City midfielder Diego Arismendi and Colombian defender Efrain Cortes are their major the major reinforcements for the season ahead for a squad that already boasts the likes of Alvaro Recoba and Diego Luna.
Los Tricolores were drawn in a tough group with Ecuadorian champions Barcelona, Argentinian giants Boca Juniors and Mexican outfit Toluca. The debut at home against the Ecuadorians appears as a must-win match if their hopes to advance far in the competition are to remain. Tough trips and long journeys await the club in this new edition of the Libertadores, and there’s a lot of expectation as to whether the new faces in the squad can help the team advance beyond the group stage.
Meanwhile, Apertura champions Penarol – who get a chance to fight for the tournament regardless their poor performance in the Clausura – haven’t brought in as many or as famous names to the squad, but still want to make a good impression in the international scene.
They’re trying to tempt a gem from Liverpool’s youth system, the skilful striker Carlos Nunez, to complete what seems to be a very powerful offensive line. Juan Manuel Olivera, Marcelo Zalayeta, Fabian Estoyanoff and Jorge Zambrana had a great second part of the year in 2012, and Nunez would surely complement them, as would the club’s most recent acquisition, Argentinian Marcelo Fernandez – a speedy forward nicknamed “El Rayo” (Lighting).
Other new arrivals at Penarol are Uruguayan international right back Matias Aguirregaray, former Olimpia midfielder Miguel Amado and Walter Lopez who rejoins after a loan spell with Cerro Porteno in Paraguay.
These players, together with the solid team that lifted the Apertura trophy, aim to set the record straight domestically as well as putting on a good performance in the Libertadores. They will share group 4 with Argentinian champions Velez Sarsfield, Ecuador’s Emelec, and Libertadores debutants Deportes Iquique of Chile, against whom they being their campaign.
After some ugly incidents in last month’s clasico during a summer friendly championship, the general mood in the country is far from calm. Those incidents served only to increase tensions almost to boiling point.
Constant claims against journalists, the violent atmosphere of the “barras”, ineffective policing, and with the AUF refusing to act with sufficient force are just some of the many problems disrupting the party that Uruguayan football should be. Hopefully, the Copa Libertadores can make everybody focus on the sport rather than the mess Uruguayan football is becoming.