28 June 2011

Copa América preview

This was my tournament preview for Eircome Sports Hub

Original article HERE

In recent weeks the world has seen the ugly side of Argentine football. As the most successful club in the country’s history, River Plate, sank to relegation the contemptible scenes- sadly, all too familiar in domestic football there- attracted worldwide attention. In the first leg of their promotion/relegation play-off away at Belgrano, scores of barras bravas (hooligans who infest the structures of the clubs themselves) poured onto the field and threatened the players before making their way back into the crowd. Last Sunday in the return leg, a banner reading ‘Kill or Die’ outside the Estadio Monumental made their feelings clear. As the unthinkable became reality, River supporters tore their seats up in disgust and left a trail of destruction on the streets after the game. Fears that the Monumental might not be ready for the tournament were greatly exaggerated though; indeed the capital will only host one game in this 43rd Copa América, the final itself.

And this brings us onto happier matters; how this might just be the greatest edition of the world’s oldest international tournament to date. Bearing in mind that the scenes which shame domestic football in this country are unlikely to be a factor, the reasons for this are twofold.

One is that AFA has made the enlightened move of bringing the game to the people, and to the provinces. This is no small matter in a country that, despite its size and population, is nearly as centralised as its tiny neighbour, Uruguay. Buenos Aires dominates the local footballing landscape, but in truth this push for decentralisation both recognises and should accelerate existing trends within domestic football there.

And so it is that we will see games in disparate locations like Jujuy and Salta in the far northwest, closer to Peru than the capital. Further down along on the Chilean frontier, San Juan and Mendoza- the latter significantly home to one of provincial football’s great recent success stories, Godoy Cruz- as well the more central Cordoba and Santa Fé. Finally, games will also be hosted in La Plata, an hour south of Buenos Aires, and home to most successful club in recent seasons; Juan Sebastian Veron’s Estudiantes, who won the league last year having worn the continental crown in 2009. From a structural standpoint, it’s going to be a fascinating tournament.

But equally, from a footballing point of view, this year’s Copa América could hardly be more mouthwatering. There has never been a time when the continent could boast such strength in depth. While Brazil and Argentina remain the undisputed favourites, there are many other teams to look for here. For this, we can thank the marathon CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying tournament, which has raised the standard across the continent as a whole to unprecedented levels. Who would have predicted 20 years ago that Ecuador would be producing players of the quality of Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia? They might not have made last year’s world cup, but qualifying in 2002 and 2006 (reaching the last 16 in the latter) was no fluke as that country’s football continues to grow. Even baseball crazy Venezuela, hosts of the last Copa in 2007 and once the San Marino of the region, will be using this year’s Copa as a springboard to making their assault on World Cup qualification in 2014. In the 2010 qualifiers, indications of their improvement could be seen as they held a rampant Brazil side to a draw on away ground. Uruguay, of course, struggled to to even get there via a playoff but turned out to be one of the revelations of last summer’s World Cup.

But it remains true that it is hard to look beyond Brazil and Argentina. The hosts haven’t won this trophy in 18 years, and indeed will be mindful that Uruguay could again overtake them at the top of the role of honour should they triumph here. Their case looks good. Coach Sergio ‘Checho’ Batista seems to have hit upon his own imitation of the Barcelona style, and is finally getting the best out of Lionel Messi. Their options up front are the envy of world football. Despite rumours that Carlos Tévez- so nearly omitted altogether both on footballing grounds and due to his disruptive presence- may start tonight appear wide of the mark. Checho is likely to persist with Angel Di María and Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi alongside Messi, a fluid frontline that has served him well to date. This means that stellar figures such as Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Diego Milito may well be keeping Manchester City’s talisman company on the bench. With a much more balanced midfield trade-off between tenacity and creativity than we saw in the latter stages of last year’s World Cup, they are also the best served in that area of the field. The backline remains a worry, however. Although Javier Zanetti, a surprise absentee from South Africa will bolster that area, they are poorly served both in goal and at centre back. What a pity that Nicolas Otamendi, impressive in his debut season for Porto, misses out.

Brazil are at an interesting stage in their development. Upon taking the helm, Mano Manezes’ brief was to inject some badly needed creativity in the middle of the park, and while this process has had its ups and downs, it’s beginning to bear fruit. It’s debatable whether a talent such as Santos’ playmaker, Paulo Henrique Ganso, would have ever featured in a Dunga team; and along with Robinho and his Copa Libertadores winning club mate, the current golden boy of South American football, Neymar they will be fluid in attack. Playing Alexandre Pato, hardly an orthodox number 9, through the centre certainly makes things fascinating. And there is still no team in international football with a back 5, both starting and in reserve, to match theirs.

We will deal with the groups in due course, but not to mention Chile and Uruguay at this point would be sacrilege. In a season where Alexis Sánchez has made the transition from promising talent to bonafide superstar, the side whose adventurous spirit captured many a neutral heart last summer look even more dangerous here. It’s a shame that coach Marcelo Bielsa has departed due to political infighting within the federation, but their new coach Claudio Borghi will add defensive solidity without stymying their attacking threats. The astute and tough-tackling Sevilla midfielder Gary Medel, one of the few men in recent memory to make Xavi Hernández flinch, will patrol the middle of the park. For this writer, they represent the most likely side to rain on the establishment’s parade here.

Right behind them will be Uruguay, whom they face-off against in the group stage. Coach Oscar Washington Tabárez’s tactically flexibility was a key component of their success last summer. Aside from a shock defeat in Estonia in March, they still seem to perform better against European opposition than South American; although, in light of their struggles in reaching South Africa they are now well placed to buck that trend. In a side packed with quality, from the front back to the likes of captain Diego Lugano, Diego Godín, Nicolas Lodeiro and Walter Gargano, all eyes will be on Diego Forlán. He went from hero to persona non grata at Atlético Madrid last term, enduring a torrid season. With the emergence of Edinson Cavani and the continued excellence of Luís Suárez, that pressure to lead the line has been lifted. If he can shrug off his club woes and bring spark to this attack, than we’re looking at a unit that runs Argentina’s close for firepower.

Group by Group:

Group A

Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia

Argentina, quite rightly, will fancy their chances of topping this group. They open the tournament tonight against Bolivia, hoping to erase the painful memory of a 6-1 defeat at altitude away to their opponents two years ago. Colombia should join them, but the continent’s sleeping giants will need to up their game significantly to make a serious impression on this tournament. That a man like Rademal Falcão, who netted 39 times last season for Porto (including a record 18 in their march to the Europa League), has managed a mere 7 in 28 international starts tells you a lot about where their problems lie; they simply don’t score enough goals. Whether their slow, short-passing game suits the striker’s strengths is an open-and-shut debate. In the centre, Freddy Guarín, once a teenage prodigy who lost his way for a while, enjoyed a renaissance in his third year at Porto under the guidance of André Villas-Boas. With all due respect to the remaining sides, Costa Rica will be fielding a weakened selection having just competed in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and along with Bolivia, it’s hard to see either sneaking through as one of the two best-ranked third-placed sides.

Group B

Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela

Brazil are favourites to progress along with Paraguay, and this is probably justified. But despite reaching the World Cup quarter-finals last year, Paraguay are unlikely to have it all their own way. Like Ecuador, they are in the process of renewal but could be carrying too many of the old guns. Venezuela have emerged as a competitive side in recent years, and will be hoping to rank third. Outside of the group winners, this is surely the hardest group to call.

Group C

Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico

On the face of, this might look to be the most competitive group of the lot, but appearances can be misleading. It would be a surprise if Chile and Uruguay fail to make up the automatic positions. It’s hard to know what we can expect of Mexico. Their stunning Gold Cup victory last Saturday was built on their recent success at underage level, and the idea here was to bring an under-23 squad supplemented by 5 overage age players. Two weeks ago, however, 5 of their players were suspended after testing positive for a banned substance; the Mexican federation is currently fighting their case, claiming that the substance was innocently ingested through meat. Then, just two days after that memorable victory over the USA, 8 more players (including senior defender Jonathan dos Santos) were suspended after prostitutes they brought back to the team hotel in a stopover in Ecuador ransacked the players’ rooms. They should be good to make it as one of the best third-placed teams however, as Peru- already at something of a low ebb- will be without Claudio Pizarro and have key figure such as Jefferson Fárfan, Pablo Guerrero and Juan Vargas all struggling for fitness. Don’t expect much of an impact from the Andean side here.

Ones to Watch:

Ever Banega & Javier Pastore (Argentina) Pastore has come of age this season for Palermo, and although he was included in Diego Maradona’s World Cup squad last summer, arguably the most striking omission then was Valencia’s Ever Banega. Banega struggled to adapt to European football initially, and might have become on those talents who suffer from making the jump too early. But for almost two and a half years now he has consistently gone about his business and developed into the sort of player we’d all hoped he’d become. Squat, with quick feet and a keen eye for a pass, his distribution from the middle has become a defining feature of Batista’s Argentina. But such has been the emergence of Pastore that his place in the starting XI (presuming Checho choose to retain the solidity offered by Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso) is under real threat. Both players have the capability to light up this tournament. Which one seizes the opportunity to do so will be an intriguing side story.

Neymar & Paulo Henrique Ganso (Brazil) Chuck D once implored us not to believe the hype, but Neymar has shown himself capable of backing up the hyperbolé lashed on him; and then some. With fouls given so readily in domestic Brazilian football, question marks remained about his ability to thrive on the world stage, given his infuriating propensity to dive. But Neymar is more than capable of looking after himself; being offered little protection from the referee but with his Nacional marker on a yellow and looking likely to pick a second in the first leg of the Libertadores Cup Final, Neymar hastened his opponent’s premature departure with a snide piece of revenge, leaving a gash on that hatchet man’s thigh. In the second leg, with Ganso fit again, the pair ran riot in a sublime display of pressing and attacking wizardry which the 2-1 scoreline did scant justice to. Ganso is exactly the sort of midfield maestro the seleçao have lacked in recent times, and his clever, probing passes could really bring the best out of a fluid frontline. With Neymar always looking to cut in from wide, and with his favoured trick of shaping to curl to the far-post before clipping it home near no less bewilderingly effective for being utterly predictable, this pair will give opposing defences twisted blood as they struggle to get to grips with them.

Edinson Cavani (Uruguay) What more can be written about El Matador that hasn’t been already? Well, for those who don’t follow Serie A closely, this man was the success story of the season. Having predominantly played out wide for club and country, Walter Mazzari’s decision to employ him through the middle for Napoli meant Fabio Quagliarella’s defection to Juventus was scarcely noticed. He announced himself with a brace on his Serie A debut, and has hardly stopped scoring since. Whether it be a hat-trick of headers against Juve, another hat-trick in a pulsating 4-3 win over Lazio, or that stunning 95th minute virtuoso effort to clinch a 1-0 victory over Lecce, he has been nothing short of phenomenal. Superb in the air, and good with both feet, it’s not just in front of goal that he excels; his work in the build-up play and defensively are both impressive too. Ireland supporters got a chance to witness his ability at the Aviva last March, and should Uruguay progress as expected, he represents good value to finish as top scorer here.

Rademal Falcão (Colombia) As mentioned already, Falcão has struggled to make the same impact internationally as he has at club level, but that’s not all down to his own efforts. If Colombia have the good sense to play to his strengths, he can have a wonderful tournament here. And if Colombia can manage that, we could see them going deep into the competition for the first time since their 2001 on home soil.

Lucas Barrios (Paraguay) Argentina-born, but part of the Paraguayan diaspora, Barrios last year made the call to turn out for the country of his parents’ birth. Don’t let the fact that he might have struggled to get game time for Argentina fool you (this is a team that were, up until the last minute, looking to omit Carlos Tévez entirely from their Copa squad). He’s had a fine season at Borussia Dortmund where he helped the club to the Bundesliga title, and has all the attributes you could ask for in a centre-forward; powerful, fast, direct and mobile, he also benefits from great technique and knows where the goal is. With Roque Santa Cruz out of sorts, and Oscar Cardozo not even in the squad given his inability to bring his Benfica form to the national side, Barrios is the man Paraguay will be looking to to fire them into the latter stages of the Copa.

Alexis Sánchez (Chile) The figures being bandied around for Alexis Sánchez may appear bewildering to some, but not to those who’ve tracked his career or seen his displays last season in Italy; and not to all those huge clubs who’ve come to recognise that the forward would make a fine addition even to the very best of teams. Udinese boss Guidolin’s decision to move him from the wing into that central trequartista area behind the main strikes has reaped dividends; Sánchez responded with his best season to date, capped by a string of superb individual display, firing his side to an unlikely Champions League qualifier berth. Udinese will hope to retain his services to aid their European campaign next term, but with the player looking for a fresh challenge a move seems nigh-on certain. Whoever wants to snatch away this special talent will have to break the bank though. With Chile looking a good bet to make the semis in Argentina, it’s all set up nicely for the attacker to have a stellar tournament to match the stellar fee he’ll command.

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