Star Performers: The Strongest & Bolivar
As mentioned in my Copa Libertadores 2023 Team Guide, a trip to La Paz in Bolivia is no easy task. With the stadium over 3,500m above sea level, the high altitude makes it a daunting trip for those not used to the conditions.
On Tuesday evening, The Strongest were first up to represent Bolivia against Argentinian champions River Plate. Martin Demichelis’ side are arguably Argentina’s best chance in the tournament, but a 3-1 defeat was a far from ideal start.
The Strongest’s star player Enrique Triverio scored a brace and showed his ruthlessness to put his side 2-0 up within 35 minutes – the 34-year-old proving age is just a number.
However, 24 hours later 2020 and 2021 champions Palmeiras fell to the same scoreline against Bolivar in the same stadium. Admittedly, it looked as though Abel Ferreira had rotated some of his first team players, but Bolivar were worthy winners in front of their own supporters.
Both The Strongest and Bolivar know any progress in the Libertadores will be down to their home form, but opening victories over River Plate and Palmeiras certainly bodes well and will worry their next visitors.
Biggest Flops: Flamengo & Atletico MG
Elsewhere, and arguably one of the upsets of the round was Ecuadorean outfit Aucas defeating the current holders 2-1 on their Libertadores debut.
In the final minutes, a through ball surprised Flamengo's backline and Ordonez Ayovi was through on goal. With the defence caught in no mans land and with Santos rushing out, Ayovi was able to slot home and wheel away to celebrate in front of the home fans.
Recent victories have taken the pressure off Vitor Pereira, but this has largely been down to the return of the 2022 Libertadores top goalscorer Pedro. However, Pereira decided to rest a couple of key members, including Pedro, who only featured for the final 10 minutes - and ultimately paid the price.
Take nothing away from Aucas, but Flamengo certainly haven’t found their stride this year and are certainly not showing why they are clear favourites for a third straight Libertadores at present.
Hulk-less Mineiro slip up to Libertad
The Brazilian club which had to endure the qualifying in order to reach the group stage, were shown they won’t be strolling into the knockout stage as the odds suggest.
Without their talisman Hulk, Atletico Mineiro were stunned by a strike inside 10 minutes by Diego Gomez and were unable to fight back, despite having 74% possession. However, with only four shots on target Libertad defended resolutely and Mineiro showed their weaknesses without their 2022 top goalscorer.
Although group rivals Athletico PR were frustrated and held to a 0-0 in Peru to Alianza Lima, last year’s finalists will know they have an opportunity to win the group if Mineiro continue to rely on one player to carry them.
Player of the round: German Cano continues to shine
Sporting Cristal were the final team to qualify for the group stage, but the Peruvians were straight up against this year’s dark horses in their first group match. All eyes were on former Real Madrid defender Marcelo on his debut, but it was their main striker who turned the game on its head.
Sporting Cristal took an early lead through Joao Grimaldo but it was German Cano’s brace which got Fluminense back on track before eventually winning 3-1.
The 35-year-old is a rather short price to win the golden boot, while his side are quite big outsiders to win the trophy, but all that might change if Cano can continue to perform at this standard in 2023.
Having scored 16 goals in 14 appearances, the Argentina striker is South America’s most dangerous player, and the rest of the group will need to find a way to stop him – easier said than done.
The next round of games begin on Tuesday 18th April, when Fluminense host The Strongest.
Goal of the round: Racing’s Matias Rojas
Never mind goal of the round, Matias Rojas’ strike from deep inside his own half may just be the best goal we’ll see across the entire tournament.
The Paraguayan has now scored six in his last six for both club and country and is one of the most talented players in the tournament. Simply sit back and enjoy Rojas’ strike below.