Copa America Group A Preview
Argentina is under intense pressure as the hosts and also trophy-less since 1993
Colombia's duo of Falcao and Fredy Guardin will provide a test for Argentina
Fresh of the Gold Cup, Costa Rica will field its U-22 team with 5 overage players
A look at the teams in Group A and their projected order of finish:
1. Argentina -- Argentina expects, and Argentina dreads. Home advantage is often a double-edged sword, but rarely are both sides of the blade this sharp. Argentina's squad is packed with great attacking players -- Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero. However, a disappointing World Cup, in which it was hammered by Germany in the quarterfinal, was merely the continuation of almost two decades of disappointment. The last major tournament Argentina won was the Copa America in 1993, while the only side it has beaten in a knockout tie at the World Cup since 1990 is Mexico (twice).
There have been major changes since the World Cup, with Sergio Batista replacing Diego Maradona as coach. He favors a 4-3-3, with Messi used as a false nine. Initial indications suggested Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi would cut in from the flanks, which would have meant no place for Tevez, Aguero or Javier Pastore, but reports from training suggest this week Tevez rather than Di Maria has been used on the right. Javier Mascherano tends to hold with Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega, neither of them favorites of Maradona, in a balanced midfield.
Argentina's public will expect victory on home soil, but the fear is of more underperformance and the ultimate horror of seeing Brazil lift the trophy in el Monumental.
2. Colombia -- Argentina and Brazil are clear favorites, but Colombia is a significant threat, and Argentina may yet curse a draw that has grouped them with probably the best of the non-seeded teams. Gio Moreno's knee injury robs Colombia of its playmaker, but that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, forcing Hernan Dario Gomez to adopt a fluid 4-3-3. It was that system in which Falcao and Fredy Guarin excelled for Porto last season, and they occupy similar roles for their country. Falcao is a goal-scoring center forward who can drop off to create space for Hugo Rodallega and Dayro Moreno coming from wide, while Guarin will shuttle forward to link midfield and attack.
3. Bolivia -- Bolivia's coach Gustavo Quineros has been at pains to make clear he regards the Copa America as preparation for the World Cup qualifiers (which, given Brazil qualifies for 2014 as hosts may be more open than usual). This sounds suspiciously like a pre-emptive excuse from what is probably the continent's weakest side. He will probably opt for a 4-2-2-2 that can mutate into 4-2-3-1, packing midfield and hoping to stifle opponents. Shakhtar Donetsk's Marcelo Moreno is likely to be very isolated as a lone forward.
4. Costa Rica -- The fourth side in the group should have been Japan, but after the earthquake and tsunami it withdrew from the tournament, its federation deciding it was better for its players to remain at home to complete the delayed J.League season. Spain was touted as a replacement, but instead the invitation went to Costa Rica who, having been involved in the Gold Cup, will send an U-22 side topped up with five overage players
F, Lionel Messi, Argentina -- For a long time, respect for Messi in Argentina was grudging, the perception being that he never quite did it for the national team. Playing on the right, he lacked the overlapping fullback he was used to at Barcelona to draw defenders and open space for his darts infield. Moved inside at the World Cup in South Africa, he became the sole creative focus. While he wasn't the flop many made him out to be, neither did he excel, largely because each opponent knew if it closed him down there was no other option. Batista's side seems better balanced, and now playing in the role he occupies for Barcelona, this is Messi's opportunity to secure his place in the hearts of his countrymen.
D, Ronald Garcia, Bolivia -- If Bolivia is to achieve anything -- and realistically reaching the quarterfinal by being one of the two best-third placed teams is the height of its realistic ambitions -- the key will be to keep the center of midfield tight. For that, it looks likely to rely on the Bolivar duo of Garcia and Walter Flores, 30 and 32 respectively, who will sit just in front of the back four. Blessed with a fearsome shot, much was expected of Garcia when he joined the Portuguese side Alverca in 2001, but despite being linked with Benfica, he never really settled and returned to Bolivia before another abortive attempt in Europe with the Greek side Aris. This, perhaps, is his last chance to deliver on that early promise.
F, Falcao, Colombia -- Falcao had an exceptional season for Porto, scoring 16 times in 22 league games. He scored in each of his last nine games in all competitions -- 16 goals in total in that spell -- including four against Villarreal in the Europa League semifinal first leg and the only goal in the final against Braga, a typically well-directed header. There are strong rumors he could be joining Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea; the Copa America should give a good indication of whether he can do it away from the support structure of Porto.
M, Allen Guevara, Costa Rica -- Trying to predict Ricardo La Volpe's lineup is as good as impossible given the restrictions on his selection, but it's a fair assumption his team will be heavily based on the side that reached the semifinal of the U-20 World Cup in 2009 . Guevara's performances on the wing in that tournament were a revelation, but his progress seems to have stalled at Alajuelense. The Copa perhaps offers the opportunity to re-establish his reputation.
It feels as though Bolivia has been offered up as a sacrificial lamb to get the hosts off to a positive start in the tournament's opening game, but if Argentina fails to win that encounter there's suddenly huge pressure on its second game, against Colombia. Assuming Colombia beats Costa Rica in its opener, that second fixture for the hosts looks like being key anyway: it's far better to top the group and then face a third-placed side in the quarterfinal than the second-placed team from Group C. The day after that clash in Santa Fe, Bolivia faces Costa Rica in Jujuy. If Bolivia has a chance, it is there -- at altitude and potentially with thousands of supporters having made the relatively short trip across the order. Whoever wins that game should take one of the best third-placed slots. If Argentina and Colombia draw, the final set of games could be a shootout to determine who has the better goal-difference; if there's a winner in Santa Fe, the loser -- depending on goal-difference -- could be desperately seeking a win to secure the runners-up spot and avoiding having to play the side that tops group B (probably Brazil) in the quarterfinal.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.
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