The group stages of the 2011 Copa Libertadores kick off on 9 February with a Group 3 tie between Fluminense of Brazil and Argentinos Juniors of Argentina.
Group 3 is one of the most interesting groups with four strong teams making up a "group of death". Argentinos Juniors and Nacional of Uruguay are both former champions while the other two sides are significantly richer and have strong recent histories in the tournament, Fluminense were runners up in 2008 and Mexican side Club América have reached the semi-final stage three times since 2000. It is a really tough group to call with any two of the four sides to go through.
There are a few other really tough looking groups, Group 8 is a very Argentinian looking group with Argentine sides Independiente and tournament debutants Godoy Cruz, Ecuadorian side LDU Quito with Argentine manager Edgardo Bauza and several Argentine players. The other side are 5 times Libertadores champions Peñarol who also have a couple of Argentine players. I fancy LDU Quito to win the group with any of the other three capable of claiming second spot.
Another tough group featuring an Argentine team is Group 7 with four time winners and current Argentine champions Estudiantes de La Plata, Brazilian side and two time winners Cruzeiro, Paraguayan Apertura 2010 champions Guaraní and the exciting Colombian team Deportes Tolima.
The other really tough looking group is Group 5. The favourites to win the group should be Brazilian side and two time winners in the 1960s Santos. 1991 champions Colo-Colo of Chile are usually strong opponents and Paraguayan side Cerro Porteño have been the best Paraguayan side on the international stage in recent years. The other team are the Apertura 2010 champions and Venezuela's strongest side on the international stage Deportivo Tachira who will do well to avoid finishing bottom of the group.
Group 1 is also a tough one to call with some decent teams including Paraguayan Clausura champions Libertad, Peruvian champions Universidad San Matín, Colombian champions Once Caldas and Mexican side San Luis. If Once Caldas can retain their form from the back end of 2010 they should be able to win the group but all four teams are strong on their day.
The remaining three groups are easier to call, Brazilian side Gremio should win Group 2 with Colombian side Junior, Bolivian side Oriente Petrolero and Peruvian side and tournament debutants León fighting it out for second place. I would expect Junior to go through in second place but the Peruvians are a huge unknown quantity having raced to 2nd place in their first season after promotion to the Peruvian top flight.
In Group 4 Argentine side Vélez Sarsfield and Chilean champions Universidad Cátolica should be the two to go through with Caracas FC of Venezuela and Unión Espanola of Chile going out.
Group 6 should be a cake walk for the reigning champions Internacional of Brazil with Ecuadorian side Emelec and Mexican side Jaguares fighting it out for the other qualification place. I would be surprised if Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann can avoid finishing bottom of the group.
In such a highly competitive tournament it is difficult to make predictions for eventual winners however the six most likely champions to consider are the two outstanding Argentine sides Estudiantes de La Plata and Vélez Sársfield, then there are the Brazilian trio of Cruzeiro, Fluminense and Santos and in recent years LDU Quito of Ecuador have established themselves as one of the giants of the continent.
If you are looking for dark horses to back there are several unlikely looking teams that have been playing quality football. The 2010 finalists in the Colombian league Once Caldas and Deportes Tolima both look excellent sides on their day and are enjoyable to watch too. Universidad Cátolica and Colo-Colo of Chile should both make it through to the group stages at least. Argentinos Juniors would be a good outside bet if they manage to make it through the toughest of the eight groups.
Another decent gamble would be for one of the three invited Mexican sides to win it, there is a lot more money in Mexican domestic football than in most of the other participating nations hence the number of South American players that have been lured into playing for América and Jaguares.