Crunch time has arrived in the Copa Libertadores. The group stage is gone, and we can put away our calculators and stop waiting on other teams' results. Perhaps the marquee matchup of the round of 16, América travels to Brazil to face a Santos team stacked with promising young stars and an experienced supporting cast. In order to advance from the round of 16, América will need to keep the scoreline respectable and play a tight, well-organized game, which, given América's past play, is by no means a given.
Both managers will be able to count on near full-strength lineups. Santos manager Muricy Ramalho, despite having a team stocked with the likes of Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Zé Eduardo and Elano, among others, is a coach that is known more for his pragmatism and organizational capabilities, rather than playing spectacular football. In Elano, Ramalho has an intelligent distributor of the ball who lacks some of the panache typical of many Brazlian midfielders, but a player who can easily split defenses with his wide range of passing and can deliver a mean set piece.
Neymar, widely touted as the next Brazilian superstar, should need no introduction, as his abilities have been on display throughout the Libertadores group stage and Paulista, and even with the Brazilian national team. Equally prodigious is Ganso, a well-rounded attacking midfielder with the ability to turn heads wherever he goes. Former Olympiakos and Fenerbahçe man Edu Dracena and right back Jonathan will shore up what has been a traditionally leaky defense.
In order for América to get something out of the game, Carlos Reinoso will have to ease up on the buccaneering style that produces, but also allows, plenty of goals. We saw a glimpse of what a more disciplined approach can do in América's 0-0 draw with Nacional on the final day of the group stage. Facing a long trip to Mexico for the return leg and the altitude in Querétaro (the Azteca will be in use for a U2 concert), Santos will want to achieve as good a result as possible in the first leg. As such, they are likely to attack from the opening whistle, and it will be in América's best interests to maintain their cool and look for the spaces that Santos will almost certainly leave open while going forward. América has the tools to play a quick, more counter-attacking game, but it will be another question entirely if they execute.
Probable Santos lineup (4-2-2-2): Rafael; Jonathan, Edu Dracena, Durval, Léo; Arouca, Danilo, Blumer Elano, Ganso; Neymar, Zé Eduardo.
Probable América lineup (4-4-2): Ochoa; Mosquera, Cervantes, Valenzuela, Rojas; Rosinei, Reyes, Montenegro, Pardo; Sánchez, Reyna
Santos-América can be caught at 8:50PM EDT on Fox Deportes.