Less than a month after the pandemic-delayed conclusion of the 2020 CONMEBOL Libertadores, the 2021 edition of the competition kicks off this week with a trio of first leg matches from the first phase of the competition. 

While the path to Gloria Eterna is a long one that won’t conclude until November, each of the six sides who enter the competition this week looking to leave their mark need look no further than a pair of first phase participants last year, Barcelona and Guaraní, who managed to fight their way into the Group Stage, and in the case of Guaraní, into the Round of 16. 

While it would be a massive shock if any of the six teams in action this week managed to lift the title in November, each of the six are more than capable of making noise in the competition.

Action starts on Tuesday in Montevideo as Liverpool (not that one) take on Universidad Católica (also not that one). 

Liverpool, making their first appearance in the competition since 2011, may be the in-form side of this round, as the Uruguayans are still finishing up their 2020 domestic campaign. Marcelo Mendez’ group find themselves unbeaten and atop the Uruguayan Clausura table after 9 matches and have lost just twice since mid-October. 24 year-old Uruguayan attacker Ignacio Ramírez is a goal-scoring machine, scoring 18 times in 24 matches in the 2020 season. Ramírez now gets his first taste of the Libertadores stage, and if you’re looking for a dark horse to repeat Fidel Martínez’ heroics in the opening stages of this year’s competition, it might just be Ramírez. 

Ecuadorian side Universidad Católica are back in the Libertadores for the first time since 1980, and though they’re less well-known than the Chilean side they share a name with, they’ll be hoping that a couple of promising young players and some shrewd transfer business could help them scratch their way into the Group Stage.

Wednesday’s double-header gets underway in the Peruvian capital as Universidad Cesar Vallejo square off with Venezuelan giants Caracas

UCV are making just their third appearance all-time in the competition, but the wonderfully nicknamed poets have added a few impressive names to a squad that already featured a decent amount of talent in hopes of sticking around for more than just the first phase. 

Colombian attacker Yorleys Mena scored 19 goals last season and headlines the returning talent alongside Venezuelan international Arquimedes Figuera. Well-travelled but still young, 24 year-old Beto da Silva joins the attack in hopes of getting his name back onto the mind of Peru manager Ricardo Gareca while veteran Colombian midfielder Donald Millán joins from Universitario just two years removed from scoring 23 goals while leading Binacional to the Peruvian title. 

Caracas were one of the most impressive sides in Venezuela’s abbreviated 2020 domestic campaign, but a run of poor form late on in the group stage of that tournament left them outside of direct qualification to the Libertadores Group Stage. 

Two of the side’s brightest stars in 2020, 18 year-old striker Saúl Guarirapa and 19 year-old midfielder Anderson Contreras tore knee ligaments this offseason leaving them on the sidelines for the crucial first months of the 2021 campaign. A trio of untested African attackers have been brought in to compliment a well-drilled backline that maintains much of its form from 2020. 

This week’s action concludes late Wednesday in Bolivia’s biggest city as Royal Pari host Paraguayan side Guaraní

Unlike many of their fellow Bolivian sides, Royal Pari don’t have altitude on their side as their home city of Santa Cruz sits at a perfectly manageable 400 meters above sea level. Former Jorge Wilstermann manager Christian Díaz steps in to lead the side in their first ever Libertadores appearance. While most of their business was done inside Bolivia, a pair of international signings, Argentine midfielder Joel Amoroso from Melgar and Honduran attacker Rubilo Castillo from Motagua are expected to play a big role if Royal Pari are to move on. 

One year after an impressive run through the opening phases of the 2020 Libertadores, Guaraní are back in the opening rounds and once again hoping to make some noise. Guastavo Costas’ side returns a number of key contributors from the squad that eliminated Corinthians en route to the Libertadores Group Stage, where they then comfortably advanced to the Round of 16. 

Raul Bobadilla and Fernando Fernández will once again lead the line while Jorge Morel and Jorge Florentín look set to play key roles in the midfield. Keep an eye on former Orlando City midfielder Josué Colmán who finds himself looking for game time after joining from Cerro Porteño.