Los Morados go to Monterrey

Today the first games begin in the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions league.  The group stages feature 4 groups of 4 teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean, who will play each other twice, home and away.  The top two teams from each group will qualify for the Championship Round and the final of the tournament will be in April next year.
On Tuesday Groups A, B and C kick off and I will follow the progress of Deportivo Saprissa, the only Costa Rican side to make to the Group Stages.
As always in any knockout tournament there is a “Group of Death” and Saprissa were drawn in this year’s, otherwise known as Group C.  They meet Marathón from Honduras, Monterrey from Mexico and the Freddie Ljungberg’s old club the USA’s Seattle Sounders.
Saprissa were recently named as the CONCACAF “Team of the Century” (the 20th that is) and as such they will be hoping to build on that honour by having a good run in this year’s Liga de Campeones.  Saprissa have won the tournament 3 times and finished as runners up on 4 occasions.  In 2005 Saprissa won the Champions Cup, as it was then called, and gained entry for the first time to the FIFA Club World Cup.  They were eventually were knocked out by Liverpool but equalled the best ever performance by a CONCACAF side as they finished third overall in the tournament in Japan.
Battle of the Bimbos

Saprissa’s first game this year sees them travel to Monterrey to take on the Mexican Apertura winners.  Saprissa are themselves the Costa Rican champions but will have to be at their best to get a result against Monterrey, who have had a solid beginning to the defence of their  crown with 3 wins and a draw.  They are captained by Mexican international Luis Perez and also feature Argentinian international prospect Neri Cardozo.  Upfront they have Chilean striker Humberto Suazo, fresh from the World Cup and a loan period with Real Zaragoza in Spain.   Like C.F. Monterrey, Suazo is in fine form coming into this game and was just named player of the week by Monterrey fans following his two goals against Pumas last weekend.  While he may look a little rotund, shall we say, Suazo has undoubted quality.
Able to finish with both feet, he is quick and composed in front of goal.  After an uncertain start he won over Zaragoza fans last year and finished with 6 goals in 17 appearances, as Zaragoza avoided relegation eventually finishing 14th.  Suazo is probably the most dangerous striker in the tournament this year and has genuine quality.  Whether Monterrey risk playing from the start in the early games remains to be seen but if they progress Suazo will play a large role.  Left-sided defender/midfielder Walter Ayovi from Ecuador has been a key member of their squad since his arrival from El Nacional in 2009.  Ayovi often takes up a more central midfield role for Monterrey and tries to dictate the pace of Los Rayados attacks.  He is an excellent passer of the ball and a wise head in midfield.
Saprissa need to lift themselves from a poor start to their domestic campaign.  Last season they only lost once but have already suffered two defeats from four games this time.
Coach Roy Myers admits that this is a period of re-building for Saprissa and it may take some time to get back to their normally high standard.  El monstruo morado may be taking some time to find their feet in the early stages but they remain by far Costa Rica’s most successful team.  Last season’s Champions League campaign was a disaster by their standards as they only achieved 5 out of a possible 18 points and lost at home to a team from the US for the first time in their history.   This time around Saprissa say they aren’t afraid of the Mexican champions, indeed as midfielder Armando Alonso states, their intention is to play well and beat Monterrey.  Saprissa are almost exclusively made up of Costa Rican players, and have a mixture of young talent such as striker Josué Martinez and midfielder Brian Gúzman and seasoned veterans like captain Victor Cordero and Gabriel Badilla after his return from a spell in the MLS with New England Revolution.  Cordero is 36 now and has played for Saprissa all his career, the no-nonsense defender was a member of the 2005 World Club Cup team and his experience will be important to Saprissa.  In midfield another important player is Walter Centeno, he has spent most of his career with Saprissa but spent a year with AEK Athens in Greece.  During this time in Europe he showed he is not overawed by the big occasions by playing and scoring in away against Real Madrid and Roma in the UEFA Champions League.  At the age of 35 he may be past his best but remains a strong player for Saprissa.  He is often the link between Saprissa’s midfield and attack and has a powerful shot from distance.
Given recent form and home advantage Monterrey have to be strong favourites for this tie.  The game (and many others) is being streamed live on the CONCACAF Champions League website.

Saprissa Champions League schedule (all times EST)

17/8/10 – Monterrey (A) 22:00
26/8/10 – Marathón (H) 22:00
14/9/10 – Seattle Sounders (H) 22:00
22/9/10 – Marathón (A) 22:00
28/9/10 – Monterrey (H) 22:00
19/10/10 – Seattle Sounders (A) 22:00

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