Posted: Thursday June 30, 2011 8:57AM ; Updated: Thursday June 30, 2011 8:57AM
Jonathan Wilson
Jonathan Wilson>INSIDE SOCCER

Copa America Group B preview

Story Highlights

Brazil is aiming to win its fifth Copa America in its last six attempts

Paraquay are a solid defensive team that plays consistently and unspectacularly

Ecuador's golden generation has aged and it has yet to find suitable replacements

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Neymar
Brazil's attack will be keyed by the explosive presence of young star Neymar.
Paulo Whitaker/Landov

A look at the teams in Group B and their projected order of finsh:

1. Brazil -- Having seemingly not taken the Copa America seriously for years, Brazil could win its fifth title in six attempts -- and there would, of course, be no better place to do it than in its main international rival's back yard. After the years of pragmatism under Dunga, the appointment of Mano Menezes has seen a return to a more attacking approach. He has spoken of his preference for 4-2-3-1, but the use of Pato as the main central striker and the Brazilian obsession with 4-2-2-2 probably means a hybrid, with Neymar to the left. Ganso or Elano are likely to take the two attacking midfield berths, one pulling right.

2. Paraguay -- The World Cup performance said everything about Paraguay. Gerardo Martino's side reached the last eight playing the sort of solid, unspectacular soccer Paraguay has practiced for decades, and there is nothing to suggest things will be different in Argentina. Martino favors a 4-3-2-1, with Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Valdez supporting Lucas Barrios, who had a superb season helping Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title. Others, though, have had a less happy season, with Santa Cruz and Cristian Riveros struggling for playing time.

3. Ecuador -- After reaching the finals of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006 -- unprecedented success for a nation that only began to emerge as a soccer power two decades ago -- Ecuador missed out on the 2010 tournament in South Africa, and must come to terms with the passing of that generation. The front two -- Cristian Benitez buzzing off Felipe Caicedo -- both have Premier League experience, while Cristiana Noboa and Segundo Castillo offer a solid barrier in front of the back four. The most vaunted player, though, is Manchester United's right-sided midfielder Antonio Valencia.

4. Venezuela -- For years Venezuela was perceived as a baseball country rather than somebody to take seriously from a soccer point of view, but reaching the quarterfinal on home soil four years ago may have begun to change that. Qualification for the U-20 World Cup in Egypt two years ago offers hope for the future, and the fact Venezuela finished just two points off a playoff for World Cup qualification suggests it has the capacity to upset the continent's more vaunted names. Cesar Farias, the coach, tends to favor a flexible 4-2-3-1 with Juan Arango of Borussia Monchengladbach playing just behind Getafe's Nicolas Fedor up front.

Players to watch

M, Lucas Leiva, Brazil -- Most of the talk, understandably, will focus on Brazil's forward line, and particularly Neymar, who seems almost certain to move to a major European club this summer, but the key is probably the balance of the midfield. Ramires will perform his characteristic shuttling role, Elano offers a spiky creativity, Ganso is wonderfully imaginative and the player who holds it together with his positional play is Lucas Leiva of Liverpool. Initially mocked at Anfield, seemingly for not being a like-for-like replacement for Xabi Alonso, he has emerged over the past season as a dynamic holding midfielder of some substance -- having started out as a much more forward-minded player -- and his discipline in front of the back four will be vital in liberating the two fullbacks to attack.

F, Nelson Haedo Valdez, Paraguay -- Valdez is not just a fine finisher and a combative presence cutting in from the left; he also seems to embody the spirit of this Paraguay side. Desperate to make it as a professional, he moved almost 200 miles from home to Atletico Tembetary where he initially under one of the stands. He worked shifts in a sawmill to make ends meet, and admits he was so devoted to cane liquor he was a borderline alcoholic. He failed to impress in a trial game for Werder Bremen after being spotted by a German scout, begged for another go and was signed up, repaying the favor by scoring four on his debut. His ability to play deep has restricted his goals output to an extent since, but he was a key part of the Hercules side relegated from the Spanish top flight last season. His link up with Riveros and the attacking left back Aureliano Torres is vital to giving Paraguay at least a semblance of fluidity.

M, Tomas Rincon -- The ideal in a 4-2-3-1 is for one of the holding players to be a ball-winner and the other to be a distributor. In Venezuela's holding pair Giacomo Di Giorgi is the workhorse, while Rincon is the brains, his passing essential to linking the back four with the front four. He retains sufficient defensive nous that he sometimes plays at right back for Hamburg. Rincon isn't a certain starter for the Bundesliga side, but at 23 to have started 50 games in all competitions over the past three seasons is a reasonable enough record and suggests a player on the rise.

M, Cristian Noboa -- Valencia is the bigger name, but if the holding duo of Noboa and Castillo don't win the ball sufficiently, the Manchester United winger could find himself starved of possession, even with his propensity for tracking back. Noboa's purposeful demeanor was central to Rubin Kazan's two Russian league titles in 2008 and 2009, and for both club and country the sense is that he is the central hub. Sitting just in front of the back four, he organizes and makes tackles, and is likely to sit is while Castillo goes hunting possession. He's not just destructive, though, and offers a range of passing options.

How it'll unfold

First Argentina is given its big start in La Plata, the two days later Brazil too kicks off an hour down the coast from Buenos Aires, and with a similarly straightforward game. It should dispose of Venezuela relatively comfortably, meaning the group hinges on what happens the same day in Santa Fe, where Paraguay meets Ecuador. Whoever prevails in that clash should be confident of taking second-place in the group behind the Brazilians. Paraguay is marginal favorite, and then goes to Cordoba to face Brazil, while Venezuela faces Ecuador probably needing at the very least a draw to have any chance of progressing. Ecuador, meanwhile, needs points on the board early before a meeting with Brazil in its final game -- although it may benefit if Brazil has already qualified.

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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