Club América and Argentinos Juniors meet Wednesday night in a high-stakes clash that will do a lot to shape the landscape of Group 3 in the Copa Libertadores. With Argentinos in first on seven points and América just one point behind, the winner will go top and take a huge step towards advancing to the knockout phase.
With Brazilian champions Fluminense squaring off against Uruguayan title holders Nacional in Montevideo earlier in the evening, both clubs will have a good idea of what is required of them to advance from what is easily one of the Libertadores' most evenly matched and toughest groups. Argentinos can actually advance with a win at the Azteca, which is no mean feat, but not totally out of the question. América wouldn't be able to advance with a win, but traveling to Nacional, arguably the group's weakest team, in the last round, a win would set Las Águilas up nicely to go through.América is coming off the back of a thrilling 5-4 victory at the Estadio Azteca over Puebla that put them top of their group in the 2011 Clausura. As the scoreline suggests, the club's high-powered offense did the trick on Sunday, but the team left some serious gaps in its defensive line. Argentinos are also enjoying success domestically, as they remain the only unbeaten team in the 2011 Argentine Clausura. However, with five draws and just three wins, they have not been able to find the winning goals and propel themselves to the top of the table, as they sit fifth among the crowded pack of title-chasers.
For Mexican soccer fans still unfamiliar with Argentinos as opponents, they are not counted among the biggest clubs in Argentina, but as América supporters will know, they are not to be taken lightly, having cruised to a 3-1 win in their match in Buenos Aires. Daniel Montenegro opened the scoring on that occasion for the visitors, but a brace from Paraguayan striker Santiago Salcedo was capped by a fine goal from Cristian Sánchez Prette to lift Argentinos to three points.
While we can expect the usual attacking verve from an América side in need of an important three points at home, Argentinos manager Pedro Troglio has already stated he will look to sit back and exploit the spaces afforded by América's numbers going forward. While Argentinos showed a little bit more of an attacking outlook in their 2-0 win at Banfield in the league last weekend, this defensive outlook as largely been the norm for Troglio's men. They have conceded a miserly two goals in eight league games, but conversely have only managed to score seven. Things look a little different for Argentinos in the Libertadores, where they have scored six and conceded four in four games.
Argentinos' tight defense is anchored by rumored Bolton Wanderers target Santiago Gentiletti and Miguel Ángel Torrén, and backed by former Napoli goalkeeper Nicolás Navarro. Despite the loss of the talismanic Nestor Ortigoza to San Lorenzo in January, the Argentinos midfield still features the likes of Juan Mercier, a member of Diego Maradona's provisional squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, who will have to play an excellent game to slow down América's potent attacking midfielders. Up front, the firepower will be provided by Salcedo and the quite small, but quite talented Franco Niell, who stands at just 5'4" but still managed to score two headers against Fluminense. The Chilean Emilio Hernández can provide some trickery off the bench, while Troglio can also call on Gonzalo Vargas and Mauro Bogado if the goals aren't coming.
As for América, don't expect anything radically different from Carlos Reinoso's men. Guillermo Ochoa has come under a lot of fire for his performance in Mexico's 1-1 friendly draw with Venezuela and again after conceding four goals against Puebla. Nonetheless, it is not Ochoa, but the defense that should worry América supporters. The normally reliable Aquivaldo Mosquera has struggled somewhat in recent games, but the whole back line has appeared out of sync and unable to deal with serious pressure. Going forward is where América will look more comfortable as Miguel Layún, Ángel Reyna, Matías Vuoso, Daniel Montenegro and Vicente Sánchez will provide a host of attacking options, with Pavel Pardo and Rosinei anchoring the midfield.
It may be a cliché, but it is true nonetheless that an early goal from either side would drastically change the complexion of this game. If América score early, they will force Argentinos to chase the game and could easily put a few more past the visitors, especially as the altitude takes its toll. On the other hand, if Argentinos can nick a goal, expect them to defend hard and stymie América's attack in search of a smash and grab win. Either way, it promises to be one of the most intriguing games of the round, with two successful teams playing drastically different styles in search of a big win.
Will Argentinos grab a win and advance, or will América make their own statement of intent? You can find out at 10:50PM EDT on FOX Deportes.