The Apertura round of the Liga Águila 2016 is underway. With Fortaleza and Atlético Bucaramanga new in the top division, 20 teams will compete over the next four months for a spot in the top eight and a place in the playoffs. Straight knockouts will then define the Colombian football champion. Freek Huigen looks at the title favourites for this season
In much the same way as last year, Atlético Nacional is the team to beat. They have seen their best players from last season leave but don’t seem to have gotten any weaker. Last season’s top goalscorer Jefferson Duque and central defender Óscar Murillo moved to the lucrative Mexican league, while player of the season Yimmi Chará finished his loan spell at Nacional and went back to Mexico. Los Verdolagas’ most important signing is that of the Colombian national team’s Victor Ibarbo, who signed a five month loan deal with Nacional. The 25-year-old winger suffered a bad spell in the English Premier League with Watford and decided to go back to his roots in Medellín. He didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome though – two days before his debut he was the victim of a street mugging. But weeks after they picked up their first trophy of 2016 (see box below) they are the undisputed number one title candidate.
Nacional wins Superliga
Exactly 38 days after Atlético Nacional picked up the league title, los Verdolagas added another prize to their trophy cabinet. Nacional won the Superliga against Deportivo Cali with a hefty 5-0 aggregate score. The trophy, disputed between the champion of the Apertura and the Clausura of 2015, turned out to be an easy scalp for Nacional.
In the first leg in Cali, Nacional left no doubt about who was going to win the trophy and the additional ticket for the Copa Sudamericana this year. Pecoso Castro’s men worked hard but had little luck when the woodwork stood in the way five times in one game. With two goals, Jonathan Copete sealed the away win, making the second leg in the Atanasio Girardot stadium a formality.
Fresh off their Copa Sudamericana victory, Independiente Santa Fe are the other favourites for the title. Los Cardenales saw striker Wilson Morelo and defender Francisco Meza move to Mexico, both of whom played a key role in the successful 2015 Copa Sudamericana campaign. The side from the capital strengthened its ranks with Argentine midfielder Jonathan Gómez, Junior’s cup winner William Tesillo and a handful of Colombian Under-23 players. With fresh, talented blood, manager Gerardo Pelusso will continue with his defensive playing style for a season in which they will be battling for two titles.
The biggest threat to both Nacional and Santa Fe in their hunt for the title is their participation in the Copa Libertadores.
Deportivo Cali and the two title favourites are Colombia’s representatives in the South American equivalent of the Champions League and the extra amount of games and travel involved have historically imposed a huge burden on the teams involved. Santa Fe have already begun their lengthy campaign, currently defending a 3-1 lead ahead of the return leg of the qualification against Bolivian side Oriente Petrolero on Thursday February 11.
Another thing to worry about for the top teams is the fact that Dimayor has decided to play the league finals during the Copa América. Teams with players involved in their national squads will not be able to field their best team in the final.
El poderoso de la montaña
Independiente Medellín are the third favourites for the title. El poderoso de la montaña have kept their base from last year together and added Once Caldas stars Johan Arango and Marlon Piedrahita to the squad. For the fans the biggest signing is that of local hero Mauricio Molina, who has returned to Medellín after a successful spell in South Korea. At 35 years old, experts doubt he will be very influential for Medellín this season, but for now he can’t do anything wrong in Colombia’s second biggest city.
Last year’s cup winners and league finalists from Barranquilla lost Colombian squad player Gustavo Cuéllar to Flamengo in Brazil and saw William Tesillo make the move to Santa Fe, but kept their offensive midfielders Vladimir Hernández and El Pibe Valderrama’s cousin Jarlan Barrera in the ranks. With last season’s most important player, the experienced striker Roberto Ovelar, still at Los Tiburones, they can’t be ruled out for this year’s crown.
After this group of favourites there is a group of outsiders with Millonarios amongst them. Los Embajadores are trying to put a nightmare season behind them, in which they missed out on the playoffs. Manager Ricardo Lunari left mid season but his replacement Rubén Israel couldn’t take the side to the eighth-place berth. A new contract for star goalkeeper Nicolás Vikonis and a caravan of new players with potential have brought hope to the pestered Millonarios fans who saw big rivals Nacional take over the honour of being the club with the most league titles last December.
Deportivo Cali, Deportes Tolima, Once Caldas, Equidad and Deportivo Pasto are also outsiders for the title but they all seem to have become weaker in comparison with last year and Cali has the Copa Libertadores duty to deal with. Equidad had a nightmare end to last season – Bogotá’s third side was in a top eight position for a good part of the season, but a sloppy end saw Los Aseguradores finish empty handed. This year they don’t seem to have improved, so it is unlikely we will see playoffs in Bogotá’s second stadium, El Techo.
Águilas Doradas or Rionegro?
Águilas Doradas changed their name to Rionegro Águilas. It isn’t the first change of name the team has gone through since promotion to the Liga Águila was obtained in 2010. The side joined the first division as Itagüí.
The club started in the top division playing in the municipality of Itagüí, until club President Fernando Salazar got into a dispute with the local government halfway through 2014. The club wasn’t welcome anymore in Itagüí and moved to Pereira, subsequently changing their name to Águilas de Pereira.
Six months later, the club had to leave Pereira after a new dispute so they moved to a temporary ground in Rionegro, changing their name to Águilas Doradas. The club had planned to head back to Itagüí after the change of administration at the beginning of this year, but the change didn’t work in their favour, and they ended up reaching an agreement with Rionegro to make it – for now – their definite ground.
Rionegro Águilas could be called an outsider for the top eight this season. But still waiting for their ground to be finished, it will take time to know where they stand.
El Techo lost the right to host Deportes Tolima, who moved back to the Murillo Toro stadium in Ibagué, but that doesn’t mean that Equidad is exclusive in El Techo this year. Promoted side Fortaleza will spice up Bogotá with more Liga Águila football. The club surprisingly achieved promotion with a young and talented team, but doesn’t seem to have the financial power to form a mid table team a level higher. The fourth side of Bogotá seems to have been condemned to a year of relegation football before the season even started.
The dark horse this season is the other promoted side Atlético Bucaramanga. Los Leopardos cruised to the title in the second division last year and are back in the top division after an absence since 2008. Bucaramanga have made some interesting signings this season and seem to have the financial power to sustain their position in the top flight. The side has a fanbase that is is in the top ten of the league and has a long history. Avoiding relegation will be their main goal because it is unlikely they will battle for the title just yet, but it is a team to keep an eye on.
By Freek Huigen