Lionel Messi, Argentina join Brazil as favourites at controversial event


Many of the players would rather not be here, and that applies to some of the coaches as well. But the preamble is coming to the end of its long and winding road, and the controversial 47th version of the Copa America will kick off in Brazil on Sunday.

– Copa America bracket, fixtures schedule
– Why is the Copa back in Brazil? All you need to know

One reason for opposition to the tournament, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic. During the course of the competition Brazil will reach the gruesome death toll of half a million. It is hardly a surprise that three of the sponsors do not want their brands to be associated with the Copa.

And there is another angle of attack. The European based players — which means almost all of the big names — are giving up their holidays to take part. They would rather do it for a more compelling reason — such as catching up with South America’s World Cup qualification campaign. As it stands it is unclear how the remaining twelve rounds can be crammed in before the end of March. Some of them could be played now.

Instead, priority has been given to the fourth version of the Copa since 2015 — one of the most bizarre in the competition’s 105-year history. Because there were originally going to be two hosts (Colombia and Argentina), the teams have been split into two groups. The plan was for a 12-team competition. But invited guests Australia and Qatar were forced to pull out, leaving two groups of five — and a long group phase that only eliminates the bottom team. The final week, with the knock-out rounds, should be exciting. Up until then, the tournament could drag like some endless dreary wet Wednesday.

There is a key question here: Who can turn this into opportunity? As a result of the pandemic, only four rounds of World Cup qualifiers were played last year. The two rounds earlier this month were the first competitive games since November — and it showed. In those ten games, there were only two home wins — a strikingly low figure for South America. The evidence was clear. The teams were rusty, lacking the flow and cohesion that comes from time spent together. As a result, the balance was tilted towards the cautious, defensive sides.

Now after the famine comes the feast. There is an excess of international games over the course of the next few months. But at least it gives the coaches the precious commodity of time. And the group phase of the Copa — competitive without being high-pressure — gives them an environment where they both consolidate and experiment. These are some of the things to look for over the next few weeks:

Newly appointed hosts and defending champions Brazil probably have least to gain from the Copa, for two reasons. One is that anything other than triumph on July 10th will be seen as failure. And also because things are already going very nicely. With six wins out of six they are skating through World Cup qualification, with a swagger in their stride not seen since late 2016 and through 2017.

Even so, coach Tite will relish the chance to have an extended look at the local hero, Flamengo striker Gabriel Barbosa. The so-called “Gabi-goal” was not on target in the qualifiers, but his movement across the front line was interesting, and he is the closest the current squad have to a genuine centre forward. Perhaps even more important is the opportunity to observe Lucas Paqueta, an elegant figure capable of operating up front, on the wing or in midfield. It is in the latter role that he might have most to offer. He looks like the closest thing Brazil have to Renato Augusto, the injury prone midfielder who was so important to the team in 2016-17. And after missing the 2019 title run with an ankle injury, Neymar is hoping to lift the trophy this time around.

Argentina are unbeaten since losing the semifinal of the 2019 edition to Brazil. Under rookie coach Lionel Scaloni they made progress during that tournament and have made plenty more since. After the shambles of the 2018 World Cup, they are looking like a team again. They have developed an interesting circuit of passing in midfield. Lionel Messi is well knitted into the side and has developed over the last two years into a more vocal and encouraging figure. The competition gives him a chance to improve his relationship with centre forward Lautaro Martinez. But the priority is at the other end. Scaloni would love to come away from the Copa with a better defined defensive unit, with the likes of keeper Emiliano Martinez and centre-back Cristian Romero emerging as undisputed names for the starting line up. Scaloni would also love to come away with Argentina’s first piece of senior silverware since 1993.

Uruguay would love to come away from the Copa having scored some goals. They failed to find the back of the net in the last three games, and now welcome back Edinson Cavani after suspension to team up with Luis Suarez once more. Great things are expected of their generation of central midfielders, and veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez can also shuffle his pack. Might he go with Brian Rodriguez on the wing or give more chances to the latest revelation, perky playmaker Facundo Torres? Or perhaps it is the moment when another No. 10, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, finally proves that he can tip the balance at international level. These are nice problems for any coach to have.

Third in World Cup qualification, Ecuador will want to be able to convince themselves that the two defeats suffered earlier this month was down to bad luck more than bad planning. Coach Gustavo Alfaro is unlikely to repeat the formation he used in Tuesday’s shock home defeat to Peru, when he started with two centre forwards. And he is likely to give more time and importance to promising young winger Gonzalo Plata.

Paraguay have yet to win at home in the qualification campaign, and will not make it to Qatar at the end of next year without an improvement, Coach Eduardo Berizzo is a former assistant to Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa. It was always going to be interesting to see how the ultra-attacking approach of a Bielsista would knit with the traditional Paraguayan defensive resilience. So far Berizzo has been unable to get his team on the front foot, and has often taken refuge in deep defence. This tournament gives him a chance to try something more expansive, something more likely to turn home draws into wins.

Colombia have a new coach in Reinaldo Rueda, who will relish the chance to stamp his own imprint on a side that has considerable potential but will be missing talisman James Rodriguez. Rueda went back to his native Colombia after leaving Chile, whose new coach is Martin Lasarte. Chile’s big problem for the last few years has been a lack of capacity to move away from the golden generation that won the 2015 and 2016 editions. They desperately need some dynamic young talent to take the mantle from Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal — making this an important tournament for Brazil-based striker Carlos Palacios and for Ben Brereton of Blackburn Rovers.

Also looking at new players are Peru, who have left out captain and centre forward Paolo Guerrero. The Italian-born Gianluca Lapadula has only recently agreed to play for Peru, the land of his mother’s birth. He was the hero of Tuesday’s win over Ecuador, and is now joined by another new striker, the Mexico-based Santiago Ormeno. Peru are bottom of the World Cup qualification table. But coach Ricardo Gareca can point to history. They made a bad start to the Russia 2018 qualifiers. But the chance to regroup in the 2016 Copa was vital. Gareca found his blend five years ago and is now seeking to do the same thing this time.

That leaves Bolivia under Cesar Farias, and Jose Peseiro’s Venezuela. Farias will take heart from the last three rounds of qualifiers — a home win flanked by two away draws. And Peseiro clings to the hope that the generation that took Venezuela to second place in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup can now kick on at senior level. Both will hope to come away from Brazil with confidence enhanced, or at least intact — and a big part of that will be avoiding the early elimination that comes from finishing bottom of the group.



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