Copa America commands questions, from host Argentina to Venezuela
Argentina's attack is strong, led by Lionel Messi, but the host's defense is a worry
Brazil's principal concern is its emotional aspect; Neymar's petulance will be tested
Uruguay wants to keep momentum going; Chile looks for life after the Bielsa era
The world's oldest continental tournament, the Copa America has ensured its continued relevance by finding a perfect slot in the global calendar.
It is now held every four years and kicks off a new cycle of competitive games in South America. After a year of bedding in new coaches and playing lucrative friendlies, the Copa is primarily a warm up for the next series of World Cup qualifiers, which kick off in October. It is for this reason that the 10 South American countries (though not the two invitees from CONCACAF) are as near full strength as possible for the tournament that gets under way in Argentina on Friday.
Of course, they would all love to hold the trophy aloft in Buenos Aires on July 24, but for all the coaches the priority is to prepare their teams for future battles. These are some of the storylines to look for from the South American nations in the Copa -- and maybe beyond.
1. Can Argentina defend? With Banega playing the Xavi role and linking up with Messi, coach Sergio Batista's imitation Buenos Aires Barcelona will play some sparkling stuff, and there are plenty of attacking options on the bench if the need arises to chase the game.
But there are problems at the other end of the field. Unlike Barcelona, Argentina are unlikely to be able to press for 90 minutes. As the recent friendly against the U.S. highlighted, once the game is dragged back into their half, defects start to appear. The center backs are shaky, and the goalkeeping position is a worry. There night not be too many defensive alarms during the group phase, but the rear guard will surely be tested if Argentina are to win the title.
2. Is there hope for Bolivia? Not much, on the face of it. Bolivia has become the weakest team on the continent, and its playing catch up after being late to appoint its new coach, Gustavo Quinteros. The squad looks thin and certainly lacking in physicality.
But Bolivia does have some players who look useful on the counter-attack -- Arce is a lively support striker, Campos an attacking midfielder who strikes the ball well, and Martins Moreno, if lacking in express pace, an interesting center forward. They can take some heart from the displays of Oriente Petrolero in this year's Libertadores -- the best Bolivian side in the competition for some time, formed by Quinteros and supplying a number of players to the national squad. More importantly, it is in the same group as Costa Rica -- frequently one win can be enough to make the quarterfinals, which Bolivia would see as a triumph.
3. Can Colombia score? A dearth of goals has been a Colombian problem for some time, and this season it has been on target just nine times in 11 games. The attacking resources exist for Colombia to do far better -- Falcao Garcia, Martinez, Rodallega and Gutierrez are a dangerous group of strikers.
The question comes down to how its plays. An intense debate has opened up about the success of Falcao Garcia with Porto -- where his dynamism and front-to-goal aggression make him a big success. In Colombia's slower build up, his back-to-goal limitations are exposed. Kicking off against Costa Rica's experimental young team gives it a chance to pick up momentum, and a semifinal place is well within its grasp. But the most crucial question for coach Hernan Dario Gomez is to emerge from the Copa with a convincing collective idea that gets the best out of the players at his disposal.
1. Can Brazil keep its emotional control? Very few teams in history have faced the pressure that Brazil will be under on home ground in 2014. A concern, then, is a tendency for players to lose their heads -- Felipe Melo was sent off as the team suffered an emotional collapse in the second half of last year's World Cup quarterfinal against Holland, and Brazil has also lost a man in friendlies this year against France and Holland.
Other issues exist for coach Mano Menezes. With Thiago Silva quietly imperious at center back, the defense is looking solid. An attacking blend, though, has so far proved elusive. His side has been more convincing with a target man center forward -- surprising then, that the injury-prone Fred is the only player of this type on the squad. The principal concern, though, is the emotional aspect. Neymar, the brilliant but petulant boy prince of the Brazilian game, will have his temperament tested to the full in Argentina.
2. Is Venezuela for real? Traditionally more identified with baseball and beauty contests, Venezuela has made dramatic strides with its soccer, and now, for the first time, goes into a cycle of competitive matches with a realistic hope of qualifying for the World Cup. Its U-20s made it to the 2009 World Youth Cup, and some from that squad (most notably Yohandry Orozco and Jose Salomon Rondon) have graduated to the senior squad, further strengthening an interesting group of players that feasibly rank as the finest in the country's history.
Can they cope with the raised expectations, the fact that good results are no longer a surprise bonus? Over the last few qualification campaigns Venezuela has beaten everyone but Brazil and Argentina. It has beaten Brazil in a friendly and ended the 2010 qualifiers by holding it to a goalless draw away from home. But can Venezuela do it when the heat is on? Its opening game -- against Brazil -- will be a fascinating reality check.
3. Can Ecuador rebuild? From nobodies to the last 16 in the world in 20 years, the progress of Ecuador up to 2006 was nothing less than sensational. But now it faces a common problem, one confronted by Peru in the early '80s and Colombia over a decade later -- how to replace a golden generation.
An inability to substitute center forward Agustin Delgado cost it a place in last year's World Cup, and it has yet to find a good penalty-area operator. Even more worrying is the gaping hole at the other end of the field that has opened up with the passing of the effective center back partnership of Ivan Hurtado and Giovanny Espinoza. Coach Reinaldo Rueda seems to be floundering in the quest for replacements. He has used nine center backs this year and looks no closer to a solution. Morale is seeping, the team has gone nine games without a win, and Rueda has put himself under pressure by omitting the popular and promising support striker Jefferson Montero. His team was booed off the field after losing at home to Mexico on Saturday, and Rueda goes into the Copa fighting for his job.
4. Is this the beginning or the end for Paraguay? After qualifying for the last four World Cups, Paraguay made history by reaching the quarterfinals in South Africa. But did that achievement bring to a close a glorious era for the national team, or announce that it has now become serious contenders for the big honors?
There is little point at examining its post-World Cup record in search of an answer. Paraguay are seldom at their best in friendlies -- coach Gerardo Martino confesses that "we haven't learned how to play these games." On the down side, there has been little sign in the national team of a new outstanding crop of players. On the plus side, Paraguay was the only country to have two clubs in the last eight of this year's Libertadores, and both Libertad and Cerro Porteno showcased some interesting youngsters.
It is entirely possible that the likable and thoroughly competent Martino will now be a victim of the raised expectations following last year's World Cup campaign. But Paraguay are seldom so dangerous as when its chances are being written off.
1. Does Uruguay have the midfield guile to keep its momentum going? Uruguay's central midfielders -- Diego Perez, Egidio Arevalo Rios, Walter Gargano -- are unselfish runners and markers, but offer little in possession and their passing is unlikely to unlock an international defense. Uruguay can only hope either Nicolas Lodeiro or Gaston Ramirez emerges to support its dangerous forwards.
2. Is there life in Chile after the Marcelo Bielsa era? Why not? The loss of the highly regarded, eccentric Argentine coach was certainly traumatic, but Chile still has some big things going. Under Bielsa a group of players were groomed who now combine relative youth with the experience and confidence acquired making friends of so many neutrals with their bold approach in the World Cup. And in Chile's choice of replacement coach it could hardly have done better than Claudio Borghi, who has worked successfully and attractively with many of the players at club level.
Borghi's side will not be quite as obsessed with attack as Bielsa's, but there is no need for the neutral to despair. Chile will still be easy on the eye. Bielsa's 3-3-1-3 will give way to a more traditional 3-4-1-2, and the defensive line will drop deeper. This could bring problems for a back unit which deals poorly with the aerial threat, but it also opens up space for the Chileans to launch their counter attack at pace. Alexis Sanchez will have more freedom to roam across the front line, and attacking midfielder Mati Fernandez already appears to be benefiting from the change.
3. Is Peru back? Beset by internal problems, Peru finished the last set of World Cup qualifiers in last place. In Sergio Markarian it has a top class coach to help it back on its feet again. The veteran Uruguayan even has on his résumé a win away to a Jose Mourinho team (for Panathinaikos against Porto). He has worked with success in Peru, taking Sporting Cristal to the final of the 1997 Libertadores, and stepped in to the current job well aware of the problems -- but also of the country's potential.
His plans for the Copa have been severely hit by injuries -- key strikers Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan will miss the tournament, and rampaging left-sided figure Juan Manuel Vargas might struggle to make it. Peru's firepower, then, is greatly reduced -- the likely effect of this will be to make Markarian concentrate all the more on his No. 1 priority, ensuring that his team stop being such a soft touch. The emphasis will be on organization. The hope will be that Peru can emerge from the Copa with a structure which, throwing in its talented strikers, can get it back to the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
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