The stage is set for the business end of the Copa Libertadores, with the first legs of the Round of 16 now upon us. Reigning champions River Plate head a bill that contains no fewer than five Argentinian teams, a feat that has only ever happened once before, back in 2008.
The draw has also thrown up a series of match-ups that, on paper, would seem to guarantee plenty of mouth-watering football. *FIFA.com *previews the action.
The fixtures *Tuesday 26 April
*Wednesday 27 April
*Racing Club-Atletico Mineiro
*Thursday 28 April
*Independiente del Valle-River Plate
Cerro Porteno-Boca Juniors
Game of the week Racing Club-Atletico Mineiro, Presidente Peron stadium, 19:30 (local time)
El Cilindro (The Cylinder), as the iconic ground in Avellaneda is nicknamed, hosts the first instalment of the showdown between the 1967 Copa Libertadores champions and the most recent Brazilian winners. The hosts' passage through the group stage was somewhat erratic, with impressive home victories over Bolivar and Deportivo Cali offset by losing on their own patch to Boca Juniors. In the end, it took a 1-1 draw with the Bolivians in La Paz to seal their place in the next round as Group 2 runners-up. Still, having kept intact the spine of the side that captured the league title at the end of 2014 and reached the quarter-finals of this competition last term – including Diego Milito, Gustavo Bou and Sebastian Saja – La Academia are hopeful of securing a strong result in front of their fans in order to set themselves on course for the last eight.
The Brazilians, for their part, topped Group 5 with 13 points, posting a clean sweep of victories on home turf and a solitary away win along the way. Only four members of the squad that clinched the Belo Horizonte outfit's first and only Libertadores crown to date – in 2013 – remain at the club, and all four are linchpins of a highly attack-minded side. Incidentally, a key figure in their offensive arsenal is the Argentinian forward Lucas Pratto, who knows all about Racing from his meetings with them during his time at Velez Sarsfield. All things considered, Mineiro have reasons aplenty to dream of another continental triumph.
*In the spotlight *Independiente del Valle have advanced to the last 16 for the first time in their history - quite an achievement considering this is just their third Libertadores campaign, having previously featured in 2014 and 2015. They claimed Atletico Mineiro's scalp en route to going unbeaten throughout the group stage, and have been rewarded with a plum tie against holders River Plate. The Ecuadorians are raring to pull off another upset and continue their historic run.
*Player to watch *Paulo Henrique Ganso is in fine form and offers the X factor for Sao Paulo, who booked their spot in the Round of 16 by the skin of their teeth in the final group stage encounter against The Strongest in La Paz. The No10 scored twice in this round, with both strikes coming on the road, one against River Plate at El Monumental and the other away to Trujillanos in Venezuela. He also showed other glimpses of his vast talent, such as when he produced an exquisite nutmeg against Nicolas Domingo in Buenos Aires. Coach Edgardo Bauza will be hoping for more moments of class to help his side through to the quarter-finals.
Did you know?
Uruguay's Nacional have played more Copa Libertadores last-16 matches than any other club. They have contested 36 in total, having qualified for this stage of the tournament 18 times between 1989 and 2015.
*The stat 540 *– The number of minutes that Colombia's Atletico Nacional have gone without conceding in the current edition of the Libertadores. The men from Medellin kept clean sheets in all of their six group games, which is a testament to the 1989 champions' stout defensive efforts, while netting 12 times up the other end.
What they said *"We're going to start to see who the best teams in the competition are now, because it becomes a two-legged affair and there is no margin for error. We're up against a tough team, who even beat Mineiro on the way to finishing top of their group, and who have some interesting players. What's more, it seems like we're destined to travel and rack up the miles in this year's Libertadores."- *River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo