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Copa America preview

Barcelona take on Juventus in the Champions League return round. (PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO)
Roar Guru
3rd June, 2016
4

It had been nearly 30 years when Chile lifted their maiden continental triumph last July since Brazil or Argentina failed to become South American champions for consecutive tournaments.

The last time it had it happened Luis Suarez was still in his diapers and Oscar Tabarez was in the process of masterminding Penarol’s fifth Copa Libertadores title as Uruguay successfully defended their 1983 win.

The two would go on to play integral roles in delivering La Celeste a record 15th victory in 2011 to kickstart a resurgence from South America’s next tier outside of the continent’s two undisputed giants. Paraguay and Peru have been highly impressive in reaching the semi-finals of the last two tournaments while Colombia have the undoubted talent and depth to win their first title since 2001.

Chile and Uruguay will remain two of the most organised, tactically flexible and settled teams in the competition while perennial contenders Argentina and Brazil will be warm favourites to go deep into the tournament.

The unprecedented level of evenness and competition that is made evident by the results of recent tournaments and the respective struggles of the Selecao and Albiceleste makes the forthcoming edition one of the most watchable for its sheer unpredictability and the quality and excitement that is promised.

Let’s look at each team

Brazil
The five-time world champions have a surprisingly poor record in the continental competition in terms of titles won with only eight, which is a paltry total considering the nation’s standing as a global footballing powerhouse.

They don’t look likely to add to that number in the USA as a combination of baffling squad selections, injuries and the recurring scars of the 2014 World Cup are seemingly conspiring against the Canarinho.

The decision to allow talisman Neymar to participate solely in the Olympics was difficult enough to understand, and Dunga’s omissions of Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo can’t help but make you question the mentality of the management.

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Six withdrawals prior to the tournament, including key players Douglas Costa and Luis Gustavo, seem to spell doom for a team already lacking in quality and inspiration. After an excellent first season with Bayern Munich, Costa was supposed to provide the spark in place of Neymar while Gustavo would have continued to be an accomplished midfield anchor.

There are still enough reasons to fear a team with a richer and more storied history than most. Dani Alves and Filipe Luis provide Brazil with arguably the best fullback pair in the tournament while Chelsea dynamo Willian, the in-form Philippe Coutinho and the pacey Luca Moura offer Brazil a varied attacking threat from midfield. While Hulk is not an out and out striker, his power, pace and rocket of a shot will at least give the team dynamism up front.

The midfield continues to lack the cerebral qualities required to allow the team to play a more methodical style, so Dunga will undoubtedly continue to remain faithful to playing on the break as it best utilises the qualities of Hulk, Countinho, Willian and Lucas. Therefore, it could come down to how well Casemiro and Renato Augusto can protect the defence and provide the prompt distribution to allow the swift counterattacks Dunga craves.

Ultimately, this is a Brazilian team as fractured and disconcerted as it has ever been and it is to see this tournament as the start of a resurrection.

Prediction
Will likely thrash their group, however Colombia, USA, Costa Rica and Paraguay (who have eliminated Brazil in the last two Copa Americas) all look capable of causing Brazil trouble in the last eight. Despite so, Brazil should still be strong enough to progress to the semi-finals if they remain united and focused.

Semi-finals

Colombia
It is hard to think how a team who lit up the World Cup with refreshing enterprise and dare to score twelve goals in six matches could only manage one single strike in five games a year later in Chile 2015.

James Rodriguez’s no-show in the last Copa America could explain the drop-off, but what is certain about a reinvigorated Colombia is that on their day they are a match for anyone. As disappointing as last summer’s performances were, La Cafeteros did defeat Brazil and only exited on penalties to Argentina after a scoreless draw.

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This attests to the team’s quality and ability to mix it with the very best. After all, this is the best generation the country has seen since 1994 with an envious blend of athleticism, technique and a raft of deadly finishers.

Well, actually that should ready “deadly finisher” as Jackson Martinez, Falcao and Adrian Ramos have all not been selected which only leaves the excellent Carlo Bacca to lead the line. While Falco’s dismal form and Martinez’s questionable switch to the Chinese Super league may have forced Jose Pekerman’s hand, Ramos’ exclusion is more difficult to understand.

Despite a defence that is seemingly brittle on paper and a goalkeeper in David Ospina who is prone to the occasional howler, this is a team who is a worthy dark horse. If an inspired James Rodriguez can put a troubled and unproductive season behind him and show up to the USA with the same ingenuity and flamboyance as two years ago at the World Cup, Colombia will have no trouble giving the tournament an almighty shake.

Prediction
They need a fast start to finish first as they have a tough group, but are still capable of navigating their way to at least the last four where they are probably going to exit against Argentina.

Semi-finals

Chile
The holders may have a new coach in Juan Pizzi after Jorge Sampaoli’s exit, but La Roja will be a threat again as they play the type of proactive and pressing game that is so difficult to combat.

There was a linear progression since the 2010 World Cup right through to the zenith of the 2015 Copa America triumph of Sampaoli developing a team which presses teams into submission with its aggressive high pressing and seemingly boundless energy.

The rawness has been tempered and now Chile have evolved into a team which harnesses an exceptional balance between physicality and technique to press more conservatively. Their improved technical ability allows them to play a more varied and less predictable game.

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This is chiefly because Chile have the world class talents of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal while the nucleus of Claudio Bravo, Mauricio Isla, Gary Medel, Marcelo Diaz and Charles Aranguiz provide the strong foundations to exercise a demanding playing style which demands intelligence and graft.

Vidal has surely added a thing or two under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich to his game while Alexis Sanchez performed admirably in his second season at Arsenal to establish himself as one of the world’s most dangerous wide forwards.

It is often said that while it’s difficult to reach the top, it is even harder again to stay there, and despite the undoubted quality of the reigning champions, it is hard to see them going back-to-back. Despite the intelligent planning and tactics behind their three-man backline, they continue to be undersized in defence.

The midfield remains as strong as ever, but Chile don’t have a quality striker to clinically finish chances. Their hopes may come down to whether Sanchez can have a big enough tournament to score four or five goals.

Prediction
Argentina will be tough to beat to the top of group D, which means either Uruguay or Mexico will be awaiting the Chileans in the last eight where Suarez or Hernandez may just make the difference.

Quarter-finals

Uruguay
Much will depend on how the record 15-time winners will cope without the services of their talisman Luis Suarez in the group stages. We all remember how good Suarez was in his final season at Liverpool when he transformed into a world-class striker.

But he has taken himself to another stratosphere this past season, taking on the mantle of Barcelona’s main man in the absence of Lionel Messi, and has evolved into the best striker in the world with his ice cold finishing and superb link up play. Not having him in the group stages will deprive the Charruas of one of the best players in the game.

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Oscar Tabarez is as wise as they come and, in Edison Cavani, Uruguay have another prolific forward who makes the 2011 winners a formidable outfit. Diego Godin is surely now mightily close to being the best central defender in the world with his warrior-like performances for Atletico Madrid while his understudy at the Vincente Calderon, Jose Gimenez, is one of the best young defenders in the world.

Tabarez’s 4-4-2 closely resembles Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid setup – a low defensive block with a compact shape in midfield which denies space and angles with overlapping fullbacks providing width while one brilliant forward brings the whole team into the game. The thing about Uruguay is that, because they set out in a conservative shape, not having Suarez is not going to disrupt the fundamental solidity of the team.

During the group stage Abdel Hernandez will give Uruguay something entirely different with his searing pace offering a more direct threat, but the fact remains when Suarez is in the team he changes the whole psyche of the team. He is the one player in the team who can turn a game with a mazy dribble, a killer ball or a shot from distance which spreads such confidence throughout the team as they know that as long as they do their job and maintain a solid shape, Suarez will work his magic.

That is why the Mexico game becomes critical to their chances of lifting the trophy as Mexico have the quality to inflict major damage. The absence of Suarez could prove to be the difference between topping the group and facing Chile in the quarter-finals or finishing second and facing a probable exit at the hands of Argentina.

Prediction
It will come down to how well Cavani can perform as a target man servicing Hernandez and utilising the latter’s pace. Cavani has the quality to see Uruguay through top of the group and from there Suarez should help shoot down the Chileans in the last eight. Brazil, USA and Colombia are all beatable semi-final opponents which should mean Uruguay reach the final where Argentina may be just that bit more well rounded.

Finalists

Argentina
The last two years have been cruel to the Albiceleste but surely this is the year to finally win a first Copa America since 1993. Lionel Messi’s legacy is perhaps riding on this one tournament as, on paper, Argentina have the most fearsome attack and a midfield with a nice blend of silk and steel.

The defence remains the achilles heel, but Nicolas Ottamendi had a strong finish to the season while Ramiro Funes Mori enjoyed a fine debut season with Everton which hopefully restores confidence to a backline which has lost defensive mainstays Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay.

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Tata Martino’s job is on the line as Argentina look to win their 15th continental title with an attack that consists of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and the creativity of Javier Pastore, Nicolas Gaitan and Erik Lamela. Javier Mascherano will continue to marshall the midfield with authority while Ever Banega possesses the passing range to find anyone on the field to help Argentina play expansive and adventurous football.

The challenge will be what system to use. Will it be a diamond with Aguero and Higuain up front and Messi as a playmaker and Mascherano at the base of midfield with Di Maria and Banega on the flanks? Will Martino opt to start with Higuain alone in a 4-3-3 due to Aguero’s fitness? This would allow everyone to play their natural positions with Messi drifting from the right, Di Maria running the left channel and Pastore adding another spark in midfield.

This tournament is easily Argentina’s best chance to win international silverware. Yes, the competition offered by Uruguay, Chile and Colombia is formidable, but this Argentina team has the experience and maturity to rise above the challenges.

Prediction
They should top their group and have too much firepower for Chile or Colombia, while Brazil and Uruguay are too dependent on individuals to get them goals. Mascherano’s tactical intelligence and versatility and Argentina’s ability to switch between a back four or five should provide the answers to keeping out attacks.

Ultimately, Argentina will have a lethal forward line and a midfield which is clever in supplementing the attack but also protecting the defence.

Champions