The 54th Copa Libertadores de America begins this Tuesday, with the first legs of the six preliminary-round ties taking place. The prize for the winners is a place in the group phase. sets the stage for a tournament that brings together the very best in Latin American football and which promises once again to serve up excitement and entertainment in abundance.

The champions
Corinthians followed up last year’s maiden Copa triumph by seeing off Chelsea in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012, an achievement that suggests they have every chance of becoming the first club to retain the trophy since Boca Juniors in 2001.

Though O Timão have lost some important defensive personnel, they have kept most of their Libertadores-winning squad together and have also lured star striker Alexandre Pato, a winner of the competition with Internacional in 2006, away from AC Milan. Given their individual quality and collective experience, there is good reason to believe the Brazilians will mount a compelling defence of their title.

The challengers
Boca Juniors
reached their sixth final since 2000 last year, and with the talismanic Carlos Bianchi back at the helm of a largely unchanged squad, Los Xeneizes are genuine contenders once again. No coach can match El Virrey’s record of four Libertadores wins, three of them with his beloved Boca, who stand second on the all-time list of Copa champions with six trophies to Independiente’s seven.

Fellow Argentinians and 1994 champions Velez Sarsfield have featured prominently in the competition in recent seasons, as have the Brazilian trio of Fluminense, two-time winners Gremio and Sao Paulo, who have won the trophy three times. Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito of Ecuador can also be expected to mount a strong challenge even if they, like Gremio and Sao Paulo, will have to negotiate the ever-awkward preliminary round.

Semi-finalists in 2010 and 2012, Universidad de Chile have the task of proving there is life after Jorge Sampaoli, now in charge of the Chilean national team, while the likes of Uruguayan duo Nacional and Penarol and Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno have all enjoyed lengthy runs in the competition in the last five years and have proud Copa reputations to live up to.

Players to watch
Pato is far from the only big name who will be worth keeping an eye on in the months ahead. Among the star defenders on show will be veteran Mexican centre-half Rafael Marquez, who has returned home to join competition debutants Leon FC, the equally experienced Brazilian stopper Lucio, now with Sao Paulo, and Gabriel Heinze and Cris, who will be running out for Newell’s Old Boys and Gremio respectively.

Figuring large among the midfield talent are sure to be Ronaldinho of Atletico Mineiro and Fluminense’s Portuguese wizard Deco, and up front Nacional will be expecting much of Uruguayan international Sebastian Abreu, as will Gremio of their new Chilean signing Eduardo Vargas. The likes of Fred, Paolo Guerrero and Marcelo Zalayeta, who will be leading the respective lines at Flu, Corinthians and Penarol, will also be in the spotlight.

Did you know?
Seven of the coaches lining up in this year’s Libertadores have won the trophy before, four of them from the dugout. As well as the aforementioned Bianchi and Tite, Edgardo Bauza tasted Copa glory in 2008 with Liga de Quito, where he is once again in charge, while current Fluminense boss Abel Braga steered Internacional to the prestigious title two years earlier.  

Two other members of this select group won it as players: Tigre supremo Nestor Gorosito doing so with River Plate in 1986, and Ever Hugo Almeida with Olimpia, the team he now coaches, in 1979 and 1990. Uruguayan Gustavo Matosas, who won it as a player with Penarolin 1987, but now is coaching Mexican outfit Leon.

The stat
- The number of teams who are this year making their first ever appearance in the Copa Libertadores. The six newcomers in question are CA Tigre (Argentina), Real Garcilaso and Universidad Cesar Vallejo (Peru), Deportes Iquique (Chile), Deportivo Lara (Venezuela) and Club Tijuana and Leon FC (Mexico), taking to 198 the total number clubs to have taken part in the competition since its inception.

What they said
“This year has the makings of being even better than the last one. I’ve got no doubts about that. We’ve made some big signings and the team is stronger than in 2012. I am sure that we can achieve very big things again, like winning another Copa Libertadores,” Corinthians striker Paolo Guerrero.

Have your say
Who do you think will win the Copa Libertadores?

2013 Copa Libertadores

Preliminary Phase
1. Tigre (ARG) - Anzoátegui (VEN) (G1)
2. Gremio (BRA) - Liga de Quito (ECU) (G2)
3. Deportes Tolima (COL) - César Vallejo (PER) (G3)
4. Olimpia (PAR) - Defensor Sporting (URU) (G4)
5. Sao Paulo (BRA) - Bolivar (BOL) (G5)
6. Deportes Iquique (CHI) - Leon (MEX) (G6)

Second Phase
Group 1: Barcelona (ECU), Nacional (URU), Boca Juniors (ARG), Toluca (MEX).
Group 2: Sporting Cristal (PER), Libertad (PAR), Palmeiras (BRA), Winner G1.
Group 3: Arsenal (ARG), The Strongest (BOL), Atlético Mineiro (BRA), Winner G5.
Group 4: Vélez Sarsfield (ARG), Peñarol (URU), Emelec (ECU), Winner G6.
Group 5: Corinthians (BRA), San José Oruro (BOL), Millonarios (COL), Tijuana (MEX).
Group 6: Independiente de Santa Fe (COL), Cerro Porteño (PAR), Real Garcilaso (PER), Winner G3.
Group 7: Deportivo Lara (VEN), Universidad de Chile (CHI), Newells Old Boys (ARG), Winner G4.
Group 8: Fluminense (BRA), Huachipato (CHI), Caracas FC (VEN), Winner G2.