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Tuesday sees the first matches being played in the group stages of South America's premier club competition, with stars like the Santos kid and Boca legend set for top billing

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By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor

While it may not possess as high a profile or the commercial power of its European cousin the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores is one of the most exciting, fascinating competitions in world football. Teams from 11 different nations - the Conmebol members plus long-standing guests Mexico - will fight for the chance to be crowned South American champions, slowly whittling down the contenders from the 32, who from Tuesday will contest the group stages.

Santos overcame Uruguayan giants Penarol in 2011 to claim the title, and with stars such as Ganso, Elano and of course the electrifying Neymar in the squad the Brazilians will once more be the team to beat. However, the Peixe will by no means have the competition all their own way. Their top rivals from Brazil and Argentina, as well as the wonderful Copa Sudamericana champions Universidad de Chile and many more beside, will all be looking to take the crown off Muricy Ramalho's team, and given the unpredictability of this marathon competition the holders cannot afford to take anything for granted.

Goal.com presents the eight groups and 32 teams which will make up the first round proper of the 2012 Copa Libertadores, and also introduces some of the players from across the continent who are simply unmissable in this year's competition.

GROUP 1

Internacional

Juan Aurich

Santos

The Strongest

Players to Watch

Oscar (Internacional): A supremely talented midfielder who also weighed in with a handful of goals in last year's edition. The 20-year-old also scored an incredible hat trick in the 2011 Youth World Cup final, and Inter have done brilliantly to hold on to him for their bid to regain the Libertadores.

William Chiroque (Juan Aurich):
The Peru international is one of South America's real characters with a ball at his feet. Chiroque has never played outside of his home country, but at 31 is a cult figure for his incredible flair and dribbling talent.

A real blockbuster group, featuring the two previous winners as well as the Peruvian champions Juan Aurich. Santos and Internacional logically start as red-hot favourites to progress to the knockout stages, but they will be wary about coming unstuck on the road; especially in the altitude of La Paz against The Strongest.

GROUP 2

Emelec

Flamengo

Lanus

Olimpia

Players to Watch

Ronaldinho (Flamengo): The veteran playmaker was instrumental in seeing his side through a tricky preliminary stage with his trademark talent, and everyone knows that on top form he can make a telling difference. Fans will be waiting eagerly to see how he combines with fellow megastar Vagner Love in the final third.

Mauro Camoranesi (Lanus):
The Argentine-born former Italy international could never win the Champions League during over a decade in Europe, but at the grand age of 35 still has the passing talent and cool head to give Lanus the chance at least to make the second round. His first ever Libertadores campaign, Mauro will be keen to make it a great one.

Flamengo will start as favourites to make the next stage, but consistency has always been an issue for the Rio giants and a couple of poor results could plant questions in players' heads. Even more so when we consider that all three contenders are extremely capable sides, and will all have high hopes of qualifying in their own right.
 
GROUP 3

Bolivar

Junior

Union Espanola

Universidad Catolica

Players to Watch

Giovanni Hernandez (Junior): Another member of the competition's old guard. The 35-year-old made almost 50 appearances for Colombia, and even in the twilight of his career, he can control games from the No. 10 position.

Matias Campos Toro (Catolica):
The 22-year-old defender is a new arrival for Universidad, having signed on loan almost immediately after completing a transfer to Granada from Audax Italiano. A brave, adventurous full-back who loves to get forward, and who has already netted in his three international appearances to date.

The two Chilean teams Union Espanola and Catolica will lead a vicious fight to climb out of Group 3, while Junior have quality across the pitch and were deserved winners of the 2011 Colombian Finalizacion tournament. Two of these three should make the next stage, with Bolivar the outsiders.

GROUP 4

Arsenal de Sarandi

Boca Juniors

Fluminense

Zamora

Players to Watch

Lisandro Lopez (Arsenal): Fans of Arsenal are relentless in their campaign to see this strong centre back in the Argentina set-up, and it is easy to see why. A dominant, powerful defender who can also play from the floor, and is a prodigiously talented header of the ball both in attack and at the back.

Juan Roman Riquelme (Boca):
This veteran is no stranger to the Libertadores, having lifted the trophy on three occasions in a glittering career. The fitness and durability of this wonderful No. 10 is at times suspect, but no one can doubt the exceptional passing and movement which make Roman still a priceless asset for the Argentine champions.

Boca and Fluminense are on paper the favourites to continue onwards, and a failure by either to do so would be classed as an abject disappointment by fans of the two giants.

GROUP 5

Alianza Lima

Libertad

Nacional

Vasco

Players to Watch

Alvaro Recoba (Nacional): A hero at Inter, and still more than capable of wowing the fans in spite of his advancing years. Not the most dynamic man on the pitch, but when you are equipped with a left foot like El Chino's, all can be forgiven.

Victor Caceres (Libertad):
This combative central midfielder was the subject of several rumours placing him in an English Premier League club during January, but eventually stayed to help Libertad continue their quest for continental glory.

One of the most evenly-matched groups in this year's competition. Libertad should expect to make the last 16, with Nacional and Vasco set for a gripping tussle to join them.

GROUP 6

Corinthians

Cruz Azul

Deportivo Tachira

Nacional (PAR)

Players to Watch

Alex (Corinthians): The former Spartak Moscow star enjoyed a wonderful start to his career in the Timao, running the midfield throughout the 2011 campaign to help the Brazilians lift the Serie A title. Blessed with a very accessible group, Alex will hope for even more on the continental stage.

Javier Aquino (Cruz Azul):
One of the great promises of Mexican football, this 21-year-old is equipped with wonderful passing ability and featured for the national team in their 2011 Copa America campaign. Has the ability to split open defences, and finished with the highest number of assists during the Apertura.

Corinthians are the runaway favourites in the group, but the Timao will be mindful of last year's Copa disaster at the preliminary stages and have to guard against complacency. Cruz Azul will be hopeful of joining them, but everything will be up for grabs against two teams accustomed to Libertadores football.

GROUP 7

Chivas

Defensor Sporting

Deportivo Quito

Velez Sarsfield

Players to Watch

Marco Fabian (Chivas): Marco is the biggest name on the Chivas team-sheet, and still remembered for his wonderful double in 2011's pre-season friendly against Barcelona. Reached the final with the Mexicans in 2010, and with European interest growing this could be the last chance for the 22-year-old to make his mark in the Copa.

Juan Manuel Martinez (Velez):
The striker has already stated his intention to follow Maxi Moralez and Ricky Alvarez's example and leave Liniers for Europe in June. The Fortin fans will be hoping that, with 'El Burrito's' brilliant running and eye for goal leading the way, this finale will coincide with a final appearance and Copa joy.

Velez Sarsfield made the semi-final stage in both the Libertadores and Sudamericana during 2011, and Ricardo Gareca's men would be devastated with a first-round exit. Of the rest, Chivas also enjoy a sterling reputation in the Copa and will be looking to make the later rounds with relative ease.

GROUP 8

Atletico Nacional

Godoy Cruz

Penarol

Universidad de Chile

Players to Watch

Dorlan Pabon (Atletico Nacional): Strong, direct and extremely pacey, this wide forward has already established himself as a regular for both Nacional and Colombia. The 24-year-old has netted twice for the Cafeteros in World Cup qualifying so far, and in a talented Nacional team will be keen to excel in the Copa.

Raul Ruidiaz (Universidad de Chile):
How do you replace Eduardo Vargas, the phenomenon who netted 11 times on the way to winning the Copa Sudamericana? To be fair, the Azul directors could not have done much better than sign this Peruvian wizard, who has earned comparisons to Lionel Messi in his home nation and who is on the verge of breaking into the Inca first team.

A brilliant-looking group right at the bottom of the draw. Penarol and Godoy Cruz met at this stage in 2011 with the Uruguayans squeezing past on their way to the final, while Universidad need no introduction after their spectacular Sudamericana campaign brought them the acclaim of the world's press.

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