By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
Four South American teams representing four countries will do battle over the next two days in the opening legs of the Copa Libertadores semifinals.
Brazil's Santos and Paraguay's Cerro Porteno open their tie Wednesday night, while Argentina's Velez Sarsfield and Uruguay's Penarol do the same on Thursday.
The four teams have eight Libertadores titles between them, with just Cerro Porteno yet to appear at the top rung of the South American ladder.
Here's a closer look at this week's Copa Libertadores semifinal matchups:
Santos (Brazil) v. Cerro Porteno (Paraguay), 8:50 p.m., Fox Deportes
Both sides have already met during the group stages. They tied in Brazil, but Santos, deploying reserves, took home a much-needed win in Paraguay all in the midst of a managerial change and pressure from fans and the press.
The Brazilians are much more confident, especially under new caretaker Muricy Ramalho, who came in and applied a new philosophy to Santos' game, leading to improvements around the camp. Neymar, Elano and Ze Eduardo have raised their games after each match, more so when Santos was left to raise the Brazilian flag following the elimination of four of their compatriot teams in the Round of 16.
Meanwhile, Cerro Porteno has quietly crept into the final four, dispatching an unrecognizable Estudiantes de la Plata side and a feisty Jaguares team in the knockout phases. Argentine striker Roberto Nanni, rumored to be wanted by Mexico's Leon, leads the tournament with seven goals but hasn't scored since early April, which is probably why he may start on the bench with Fredy Bareiro as his replacement, according to press reports.
Julio dos Santos, on loan from Brazil's Atletico Paranaense, could also start, but it's not clear if he'll be based in midfield or come up top with Bareiro. Midfielder Jonathan Fabbro, a staple of the Paraguayan attack, will be seen as the man to control Santos' effective tandem of stars. Cerro also has the 'mini-Messi' Juan Iturbe at its disposal.
Cerro has made it to the semifinals on six occasions but never to the final, while Santos lifted the trophy twice during Pele's heyday in 1962 and 1963.
Penarol (Uruguay) v. Velez Sarsfield (Argentina), 8:50 p.m., Fox Deportes
Not only will this semifinal be a spectacle featuring historical continental giants, the match will also serve as a scouting session for directors from Brazil to Mexico to England, all of whom are rumored to be attending.
Velez, which took home the Copa title in 1994, is riding high on momentum as it currently leads the Argentine Clausura and has been top-class both domestically and internationally. With a number of solid pieces, the news got even better this week after it was determined that midfielder David Ramirez is now fully fit to add to manager Ricardo Gareca's 'problem' of picking, manuvering and choosing his first 11.
The Argentines have the firepower to be considered the favorites to be crowned champions with an attacking trio of Maxi Moralez, Uruguayan veteran Santiago 'The Tank' Silva (former player of Naciona, Penarol's archrival) and Juan Manuel Martinez, with creative midfielder and Arsenal target Ricardo Alvarez deployed behind them.
Penarol, five-time champs with its last title coming in 1987, has its own sophisticated attack led by Juan Manuel Olivera, who has five goals in the competition, and Alejandro Martinuccio, who is coveted by Roma as well as some top Brazilian sides.
Last week's hero, Fabian Estoyanoff, whose goal punched Penarol's ticket into the semifinals, is nursing an injury and is a game-time decision, but it looks like he may miss the match. Midfielder Luis Aguiar could be ready to return after shaking off his own injury, and manager Diego Aguirre has already conceded the Uruguayan Clausura by sending out reserves for its match over the weekend.
His only starter, netminder Sebastian Sosa, was in fine form as usual and even stopped a penalty in the 1-1 draw against Defensor Sporting.
Who do you see winning the semifinal ties and advancing to the final?
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