Uruguay's momentum, Paraguay's bumpy road, more Copa America
Despite their appearance in the final, it is tough to tell if Paraguay is back
Peru's performance shows they are a serious contender for a spot in Brazil in 2014
Colombia couldn't seem to score when it mattered most when they met Peru
Going into the Copa America, we posed questions about the campaigns of the 10 South American sides. Now that the 43rd Copa America is history, we look back to find out if the tournament came up with the answers. (Listed from winners down to the teams eliminated in the group phase)
1. Does Uruguay have the midfield guile to keep the momentum going? They did not need it, which was one of the themes of the tournament. This was a Copa where, for the most part, defenses were on top and the counterattack was king. After the quarterfinals, Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez commented the teams which had tried to take the initiative had been eliminated. But two games where the favorite won in comfort were the semi and the final, where Uruguay won 2-0 and 3-0, respectively, without a specialist midfield creator.
Uruguay began the tournament with Edinson Cavani alongside Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez in an attacking trident, plus left-footed playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro. Cavani was injured in the second game, which, for all his form and quality, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His work rate and spirit of sacrifice made the front three possible. Without him, Tabarez was obliged to chose a more cautious formation, which soon became even more so. Replacing Lodeiro, he had a look at left-footed attacking midfielder Cristian Rodriguez -- but settled on a midfield made up of two central markers and a runner on either flank, thus ensuring his team was protected against the dangerous Peruvian counterattack in the semifinal, and that they could run Paraguay into despair in the decider. Long-term, the lack of midfield creativity will surely be an issue. But in this Copa, it was not a problem.
2. Is this the beginning or the end for Paraguay? Even though they reached the final, it is unclear whether this side has now established themselves as serious contenders, or whether they have reached the end of the road. After their first two draws, coach Gerardo Martino said Paraguay was playing better than in the World Cup. It is not a claim he could make after any of the subsequent matches. Legendary Paraguayan resilience got them through shootouts when they had been dominated by Brazil in the quarterfinal and Venezuela in the semis -- and the hard truth is that in the World Cup qualifiers five draws and a defeat will leave them well off the pace. There were promising signs from left winger Marcelo Estigarribia and, in flashes, right winger Hernan Perez. But with Roque Santa Cruz reaching the stage when his injury-ravaged body cannot take much more, some real quality will have to emerge if Paraguay are to maintain their recent run.
3. Is Peru back? They most certainly are, and they could take huge pleasure from finishing third in this competition. Bottom of the table in the last set of World Cup qualifiers and decimated by injuries in the run up to the Copa, Peru won their self esteem back, and will see themselves as serious candidates for a place in Brazil in 2014. Impressive coach Sergio Markarian achieved his objective of tightening up the defense. Traditionally strong in Lima, they will now believe they can pick up away points in the next set of qualifiers.
4. Is Venezuela for real? No doubt about it. They can take an enormous boost from a historic fourth place -- and with a slice of luck in the semifinal, they would have made it through to the final.
Over a decade of work is now paying off. Venezuela do not just have a team. They have a squad, and with graduates from the Under-20 ranks being fed into the process there is no reason why they should not keep the momentum going. At their best they were fast and fluid, and in his limited opportunities little left footed attacking midfielder Yohandri Orozco showed that he can be a key player in his country's future.
5. Can Argentina defend? There are clearly problems in their own penalty area, with the center backs looking very uncertain. But the big surprise was the team's attacking problems -- and they wound up costing Sergio Batista his job. In friendlies, there were some promising signs, especially in the first 45 minutes against the USA at the end of March. But in competitive action, they were so desperately poor that Batista had no choice but to rip up his plans and have a rethink. Argentina improved, but still did not really look like a team -- their inability to open up a Uruguay side down to ten men shows that the search for attacking full backs, as well as central defenders, must be a priority.
6. Can Brazil keep their emotional control? Some might say they lost it in the shootout against Paraguay, when they missed all four kicks -- but no one wins on penalties all the time, and Brazil triumphed in the last two Copas with the help of shootout victories.
Perhaps a better question would have been this -- can Brazil play their way through packed defenses? The answer is not well enough This was identified as a problem by coach Mano Menezes when he took over a year ago, and will clearly be crucial to their hopes in 2014, when no one will leave themselves open to Brazil's lightning counter attack. The midfield passing was a disappointment, with Lucas Leiva not taking enough responsibility downfield, and Paulo Henrique Ganso not picking his options well higher up all of which made it hard to understand the rejection of Jadson after 45 promising minutes in the group game against Paraguay. Briefly, there was a partner for Ganso.
As we pointed out before the tournament, the lack of a target man striker was often a problem as well. There is plenty of work to be done before Brazil can think about winning the next World Cup on home soil.
7. Is there life after the Marcelo Bielsa era? There certainly is. Claudio Borghi has proved a fine replacement, making his changes while retaining the attacking spirit of the side. Former great Ivan Zamorano said during the competition that he would trade all his goals for the chance to play for 15 minutes with the current side -- a graphic illustration of the enthusiasm they are generating. In possession, they were the best side to watch in the Copa.
Borghi's 3-4-1-2, dropping the defensive line deeper, is not a negative move. Indeed, it opens up more space for them to break at speed. But it does mean that when Chile commits fouls, they are doing so closer to their own goal -- and they really must, must, must learn how to defend against the high ball played into their box.
8. Can Colombia score? Not when it matters. They were a little bit flattered by being in the weakest of the three groups; once they met Peru in the quarterfinals their old deficiency was apparent. Peru coach Sergio Markarian summed up Colombia perfectly before that game -- a team which is technically good, tactically good, physically very good -- but which lacks some fantasy in the final third.
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez could certainly point to progress being made. His team was solid, with an interesting flexibility and changing of positions in the midfield. But there was no one like Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Neymar or Alexis Sanchez -- an individual talent who could suddenly take two defenders out of the game. Against Peru's organized defense, Colombia looked very stale.
9. Is there hope for Bolivia? As feared, not much. There was a dose of false hope after they held a poor Argentina side to a draw in the opening game, with the aid of a freak goal on a bad, small pitch in La Plata. Reality was cruelly revealed when coach Gustavo Quinteros' men had to do something more expansive in the other two games. The side lacked genuine quality and physicality. No one will relish the trip to the extreme altitude of La Paz in the World Cup qualifiers, but it is hard to see how they will pick up points away from home.
10. Can Ecuador rebuild? Not in a hurry. It is a predictable problem and it is proving a big one -- how to replace the generation that put Ecuadorian soccer on the map. So far they have not been able to find sufficient quality at center back and center forward, leaving them deficient in both penalty areas. The only goals they scored were a couple of long-range efforts from Felipe Caicedo that Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar really should have saved -- while at the other end Brazil was quick to seize on Ecuador's defensive weakness.
There is hope on the horizon. Ecuador's Under-20s looked good at the start of this year in the South American Under-20 Championships, and it will be fascinating to watch their progress over the next few weeks in the World Youth Cup in Colombia.
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