Copa promises thrilling knockout phase
Without Colombian defender Luis Amaranto Perea, Liverpool may well have returned from last week's Europa League clash with Atletico Madrid with a vital away goal.
Perea made his name in another red shirt, that of Medellin back in Colombia, after first working at their stadium selling ice creams and in 2003 he was one of the star attractions in a side that reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores.
Seven years later in the same competition Medellin have paraded a young defender with many of the same attributes. Leiton Jimenez has a similar slight build and like Perea, he is not great on the ball, but he has an excellent anticipation, recovers quickly, times his tackles well and takes responsibility for things around him.
Jimenez is 21 this Monday, and can celebrate his birthday by looking back with pleasure on a promising Libertadores campaign, even though they fell short of reaching the knockout stages.
Medellin conceded just four goals in their six group games, but selling centre-forward Jackson Martinez to Mexico on the eve of the competition fatally undermined their hopes and they only scored three times and failed to make it through.
This constant selling in South America means that there are always opportunities for good young players and though Jimenez will not be in action, there are plenty of other names for the notebook lining up this week when the knockout phase gets underway.
Banfield of Argentina have a left-footed Colombian midfielder, James Rodriguez, who seems destined for great things and Nacional of Uruguay have gangling centre-back Sebastian Coates.
James Rodriguez (right) could be one of the young stars of the Copa Libertadores - pic: Getty
Raul Fernandez of Universitario (Peru) is an athletic goalkeeper, while Libertad of Paraguay have been doing some excellent youth development work and it will be worth a look at right wing-back Victor Hugo Ayala, tricky little right-sided striker Rodolfo Gamarra and lanky left-footed centre-forward Pablo Velazquez.
But as well as the up and comers, the Libertadores also showcases some old timers who are aiming to round off their careers in style.
Veron senior was the key man 40 years ago when the club won three Libertadores titles and one world crown. Last year his son played a key role in ending the long wait for title number four, and captained the side to within two minutes of becoming world club champions.
With Veron junior's mission at least partially accomplished, the spotlight this year falls on Ronaldo. His club, Corinthians of Sao Paulo, have never won the Libertadores. This is their centenary year, and they are desperate to put that right.
First, they must get past Flamengo of Rio in the undoubted tie of the round, a clash between Brazil's two most popular clubs. Wednesday's first leg takes place in Rio's giant Maracana stadium, with Corinthians at home in next week's return match.
Ronaldo is a Rio lad, and a Flamengo supporter. He has often talked about playing for the club and seemed on course to do so when he was training with them 18 months ago as he recovered from his latest knee injury.
Ronaldo (right) has been plagued by injuries but still has an eye for goal - pic: Getty
Flamengo, though, wanted to wait to be certain he would make a full recovery, Corinthians quickly offered terms, and the player was off to Sao Paulo - leaving the Flamengo fans feeling betrayed.
The great number nine, then, can expect an icy reception - it didn't happen last year as Ronaldo was injured when Corinthians came to town - but can he shut the fans up?
Over the last few years he has been unable to put together a sustained spell of form and fitness, but he has been very dangerous whenever he has wanted to prove a point.
In 2009, he thoroughly enjoyed silencing those who thought he was finished. He was certainly carrying some excess weight, but when it mattered he always seemed to get in front of the defender.
He has always been a magnificent finisher, and over time has developed an understanding of how to drop deeper and combine with his team-mates. His goals carried Corinthians to victory in the Brazilian Cup, which qualified them for this year's Libertadores.
Then came more injuries and an apparent loss of motivation. With a sense of mission accomplished, he and the club did little in the second half of last year's league campaign, and this year Ronaldo has been sleepwalking through the Sao Paulo State Championship and the group stage of the Libertadores.
The time has come to wake up. Can Ronaldo turn the clock back once more? Will he produce another majestic comeback, like Muhammad Ali against George Foreman? Or, like Ali against Larry Holmes, is it now too late for the tap to be turned on at will?
Perhaps that last comparison is not appropriate. One of the explanations for Ali's pitiful performance against Holmes in 1980 was that for reasons of vanity he had paid too much attention to getting his weight down.
That's unlikely to be a problem for the 2010 model Ronaldo!
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) There seems to be a lot of Brazilians that move to eastern European countries such as Russia, which seems quite strange considering the drastic climate change. Do they see this as a stepping stone to a possible move to central Europe or are there other reasons?
A) The reason is money. Clubs from Russia and Ukraine are now paying very well, and professional footballers will always follow the money. Some have gone thinking of it as a stepping stone to western Europe, but then they've been earning so well that they end up staying longer.
It's worth putting this in perspective, though. When I first moved to Brazil, England was seen as a strange destination, it was all Italy and Spain. Word soon made its way round that the Premier League was paying well, and now it's one of the favoured destinations.
Q) I was wondering what the story was with Esteban Cambiasso and Maradona, how come he's never been called up for the national team under Maradona? His defensive and his passing capability would prove an asset to any squad - surely Maradona can't afford to ignore him?
Q) He got on as a sub in the 2-1 defeat by Spain last November, so Maradona had a little look at him there. I think it's probably true that his lobby is far bigger in Europe than in Argentina.
It's often overlooked that Maradona inherited a team in some turmoil; they won just one of the last seven World cup qualifiers under Alfio Basile. Cambiasso often played in the side, and not particularly well. Perhaps he loses out through not being outstanding in any department - Mascherano defends better, Veron passes better. But Cambiasso does have a great platform to push for a squad place with Inter's continued involvement in the Champions League.