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FTF’s comprehensive Copa America 2021 preview

copa america

It feels like the Copa America has happened at least six times in the past five years.

However South America once again gears up for a tournament that is sure to be filled with intensity and flair.

A Copa America without pre-tournament chaos is not a Copa America. However even by previous levels, this year’s has been quite extortionary, with host nations seemingly playing hot potato with the tournament.

First Colombia, then-presidential protests. Then Argentina, then Covid. Finally, Brazil, with 6 days to spare. On top of that, eight of the ten teams involved have not played since November last year. Two have new managers also. The World Cup Qualifiers before the tournament have been critical for these teams to find their identity.

Despite the chaos, the tournament is set to begin with Brazil vs Venezuela on June 13th.

Pre-tournament carnage, ageing squads, political instability. Welcome to the Copa America 2021.

Group A

Argentina

Has a team come closer to winning an international title without winning one this decade? Make no mistake, Argentinians have suffered. The nation has still not fully recovered from losing three finals in three years. A mutiny at the last World Cup, and possibly the least impressive third place finish of all time at the Copa America. Argentina will be looking to finally deliver a title to end this 28-year trophy-less dark age.

The man tasked with this, Lionel Scaloni, has steadied the ship since that insane 2018 World Cup. Assistant to the mutinied Jorge Sampaoli at that tournament, they haven’t lost since the last Copa America. Unbeaten in 11 and convincing Messi to return to the fold, Scaloni has offered temporary stability to a historically chaotic organisation.

The squad is more balanced than it has been in years. Defensive consistency has been a problem for Argentina since Zanetti retired. However, the emergence of Atalanta’s Cristian Romero and Ajax’s Lisandro Martínez offers someone to partner or even replace a rejuvenated Otamendi, who is coming off an excellent season. With Nicolas Tagliafico and the highly rated Gonzalo Montiel, the back four available is easily the best Messi has ever had. Armani and Martinez provide GK competition, with the age-old international manager headache choice of experience against form.

Despite the good form, tactically, Argentina is lacking a clear identity going into this tournament. Recent games have showcased the solid defence, but the abundance of attacking talent has yet to hit the ground running. Multiple formations have been used: the 3-4-1-2, 4-3-2-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1. This is a team still searching for its identity.

Still, this is one of the most balanced squads Argentina have had during the Messi era. If they can find that identity, this elite squad will challenge Brazil.

Likely Starting Line-up: (4-3-2-1) E Martínez, Montiel, L Martínez, Romero, Tagliafico, Paredes, De Paul, Ocampos, Di María, Messi, Lautaro Martínez

Key Player: Messi. He’s not exactly bottled tournaments with Argentina. He won the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup, and was brilliant in the heart-breaking 2016 Copa America campaign. However, he did play poorly in the last tournament and hasn’t impacted much in recent displays. Argentina cannot win this tournament with Messi as a passenger.

Young Player to Watch: The tournament seems set up for Lautaro Martínez to shine. With Messi and Pochettino hyping the striker, he has had an impressive campaign for Inter, improving his total last season with 17 goals and 6 assists. After solidifying the striker position and trust of Scaloni, this is his time to shine.

Bolivia 

No one is giving Bolivia a prayer of even winning a game, and with good reason. The current state of Bolivian football is an economic mess, with players owed six months of back wages since the start of the crisis. Most of the squad is effectively broke heading to the tournament. On top of that, political chaos has left Bolivia with little to shout about even before the coronavirus. The only two Bolivian sides to have played even refused to release their players.

The squad adds to that misery as well. With star striker and Bolivian legend Marcelo Martins Moreno, little quality is offered around him. 34-year-old Carlos Lampe is the next closest in caps, with only 27. This is an inexperienced, yet not even a young, side. The incredibly demanding boss César Farías will be hoping the high-altitude fitness his Bolivian side is famed for will make an impact at the Copa America.

Although they have just beat equally torrid Venezuela 3-1 to get back in contention, World Cup qualifying has been dire so far. There are many issues, but the inability to find a consistent centre back pairing has been the fundamental problem. Farías will likely hope newly capped 20-year-old Quinteros can step up.

On top of all this, Group A is considered to be the trickiest of the two. Still, with the group format this year losing Qatar and Australia, one win could be enough for a Quarter Final.

Likely Starting Line-Up: (4-1-4-1) Lampe, Bejarano, Haquín, Quinteros, Flores, Justiniano, Cespedes, Saavedra, Arce, Vaca, Moreno

Key Player: Marcelo Moreno claimed, “It’s a huge dream to take Bolivia to the World Cup” in a recent FIFA interview, and if anyone can, it’s him. A journeyman striker and record goalscorer for the country. He will hope that Bolivia can at least be competitive and potentially take that momentum into the qualifiers.

Young Player to Watch: Although still uncapped, tricky winger Jaume Cuéllar is easily the brightest youth talent on this side. Previously part of La Masia Barcelona set up, now in the Spal youth academy, he has shown a lot of potential in youth ranks. Likely, Farías won’t trust him in tournament football, considering he’s only made 2 first-team appearances in his career, but he might be the spark Bolivia need.

Chile

The Argentinian nightmare themselves. Chile’s golden generation are almost at their end. Whatever happens, two Copa America titles for a nation who hadn’t won it previously is not too shabby to show for it. This team is now old however. Heroes like Bravo, Vidal, Aránguiz, Medel and Sanchez are all above 30, and more importantly, not playing at a high level anymore. Even fringe players like Isla, Beausejour, Vargas and Orellana are over30.

With this, qualifying was somewhat underwhelming with a shock loss to Venezuela. Like Venezuela, previous coach Reinaldo Rueda left before the tournament with new boss Martín Lasarte having only one friendly under his belt. Throughout his career, he has often deployed a 4-3-3 and, likely, won’t stray far from what he knows. Tactically, however, who knows what to expect. If their recent qualifier with Argentina is anything to go by, Chile isn’t coming to make any friends. A tough-tackling hard-nosed team.

Vidal has been hit with Covid and Tonsilitis at the same time, so is likely to miss the start. Orellana is also potentially ruled out of the tournament with a muscle injury.

Will this generation sign off with one last push, or will it fizzle out?

Likely Starting Line-up: (4-3-3) Bravo, Isla, Maripán, Medel, Beausejour, Pulgar, Aránguiz, Vidal, Vargas, Sánchez, Meneses

Key Player: Alexis Sánchez has fallen off a cliff in terms of club form, although he did win the Serie A with Inter. In truth, he owes Chile absolutely nothing at this point. Like much of his career, their success rides on his performances.

Young Player to Watch: Ben Brereton. The lad from Stoke on-Trent. With a Chilean mother, the Under 19 European Championship top scorer for England will be at the Copa America with Chile. Furthermore, Chile is starved for an actual outright striker, so he could likely start at this tournament. If Lasarte wants Sanchez out wide or in a no 10 role, Brereton might be given the call.

Paraguay

Long removed from that Roque Santa Cruz led golden generation that went to four consecutive World Cups, including a quarter final appearance in 2010. Paraguay have failed to qualify for the last two World Cups, with dismal performances in each qualification stage. They are unbeaten in the current qualifying including four draws, some creditable to Argentina and some not so to Bolivia.

However, unlike a lot of the competition, Paraguay is one of the few teams with some stability and consistency. Eduardo Berizzo has been in charge for three years and likes to use a 4-3-3, moving into a 4-5-1 when in defence. Paraguayan teams in the Copa Libertadores are famously tough to breakdown, and Berizzo will be hoping to implement that, with a 0-0 draw just last Thursday against Uruguay. With such a chaotic pre-tournament for most teams, consistency might work in their favour.

The current crop of players isn’t without talent either. Miquel Almiron leads the way with his tireless creative effort out wide. Captain Gomez and soon to be free agent Balbuena form a consistent partnership at the back. There also appears to be a conscious effort to bring the next generation through. Five uncapped players were named in the qualifier squads to take on Uruguay and Brazil. The midfield offers a lot more uncertainty, with star Oscar Romero moved to RW. Ángel Romero is likely to start up front, however, with Antonio Sanabria left behind.

Expectations will be rather tame given recent failures in tournaments. But this is a solid, well-drilled defensive side who could shock anyone on their day.

Likely Starting Line-up: (4-3-3) Silva, Rojas, Balbuena, Gomez, Alonso, Giménez, Villasanti, Cardozo Lucena, O Romero, A Romero, Almiron

Key Player: Miquel Almiron will shoulder a lot of the attacking responsibility, and he is often on form when playing for his country. He is not a potent goalscorer, but with a limited midfield and below-average striker in Angel Romero, he will have to shine in this tournament if Paraguay wants to go far.

Young Player to Watch: Although they’ve taken some youth, it is unlikely any of these players will start. That said, Julio Enciso has superstar potential. With brilliant balance at just 16 years old, the incredibly skilled winger became the 3rd youngest scorer in Copa Libertadores history. It only took him 35 seconds. Paraguayan media dubbed him “the last jewel of Paraguayan football”. If given the opportunity, we might see the dawn of the next South American king of football.

Uruguay  

With possibly the strongest squad behind Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay hopes to end a recent run of disappointing Copa America performances failing to get past the quarter finals three times since the 2011 success. Uruguay is the most successful team in Copa America history with fifteen wins. However that has stagnated continentally despite impressive World Cup displays.

Like most squads at this tournament, Uruguay is spearheaded by experience. Cavani, Suarez, Godin, all are likely to bow out after this tournament. It may well be the last chance for them. While Godin isn’t the force he once was, plying his trade at Caligari, Cavani and Suarez have enjoyed a late-career resurgences. Cavani has proved that his considering of retirement back in 2020 was foolish. At the same time, Suarez has led Atletico Madrid with 21 goals to a La Liga title after being ousted by Barcelona.   

Manager Óscar Tabárez, at 74-years-old, is a legend in Uruguay. He introduced the youth system overhaul that brought through the talent of this current golden generation. With much of that talent in the tail-end of their incredible careers, Tabárez will want to add another Copa America to the list of his accomplishments. Although they have played 4-4-2 in most qualifiers, they will likely switch to a back three come the tournament.

The recent form has been a mixed bag. Good wins over Chile and Columbia are somewhat overshadowed by a disappointing 4-2 loss away to Ecuador.

Expectations should be high. Many of their elder statesmen have enjoyed good seasons and will be sure to give everything to win it all.   

Likely Starting Line-Up: (5-3-2) Muslera, Giménez, Godin, Cáceres, González, Viña, Vecino, Valverde, Bentancur, Suarez, Cavani

Key Player: While Cavani and Suarez are the stars, Atletico Madrid’s José María Giménez will be essential to the success of this side. Given the decline of Godin and Cáceres, Giménez needs to take a dominating role at the back to prove himself after a successful domestic campaign.

Young Player to Watch: The ageing Real Madrid midfield has been given fierce competition this year from Fede Valverde. The 22-year-old has impressed, and if it weren’t for Covid, would probably be the confirmed starter for Los Blancos going into next year. He has the opportunity to stamp his authority on the world stage.

Group B

Brazil

The reigning champions remain pre-tournament favourites. Brazil clearly has the strongest squad going into Copa America, with much of the side entering its prime years.

Tite has quietly been doing a fantastic job with a once awfully low morale nation after embarrassing defeats in 2014 and 2015: that infamous massacre to Germany and the Copa America 2015 loss to Paraguay on penalties. Although the 2018 World Cup was rather unremarkable, Tite led Brazil to the Copa America title in dominating fashion – without Neymar – on home soil.

Since then, Tite has seemed to move away from the defensive European pragmatism he introduced early in his tenure. They’ve played with a high-intensity press and an extremely high line in recent outings, earning them five wins in their last five. It has to be said though, 4 of those occurred in 2020 November.

As usual with Brazil, it will be all eyes on Neymar. After missing the 2019 victory, Neymar will be keen to show that he can win on an international stage.

Captain Thiago Silva will likely bow out after this, so he will be hopeful of leading them to glory for a second time. Strong favourites, reigning champions. It should be a formality, right?

Likely Starting Line-Up: (4-3-3) Alisson, Danilo, Silva, Marquinos, Lodi, Casemiro, Luiz, Paquetá, Neymar, Firmino, Richarlison

Key Player: Obviously Neymar. Although Brazil has proved they can win without him, it will be Neymar out to prove they can win with him.

Young Player to Watch: This really could be a breakout tournament for the criminally underrated Aston Villa midfielder Douglas Luiz. Given the power to go further forward in this Brazilian side through Casemiro, he thrives in a more advanced role. Midfield is an area for concern, but if Luiz can make the position his own, then it is difficult to see who stop Brazil.

Colombia 

Often the dark horses of this tournament, Colombia has been marred with constant instability after the departure of long-term coach José Pékerman. Three coaches have had their hat in the ring, with the current Reinaldo Rueda overseeing only two games. He was seen as a rather sadly unremarkable appointment. However he does have tournament experience and managed the national side from 2004-2006.

Because of this, Colombia is almost impossible to predict going into this tournament. That unpredictably was on full display when James Rodriquez was left out of the squad, despite claims of his injury being exaggerated by Colombia from Carlo Ancelotti. Tactically, Rueda has often played an incredibly pragmatic 4-2-3-1. However, without Rodriquez, Colombia severely lacks an attacking midfield threat.

Even without Rodriquez however, the squad features some quality players. Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina are two solid centre-backs, though Murillo has historically started with only one of them. 33-year-old Cuadrado gears up again, with a lethal, if ageing, strike force of Muriel and Zapata. An experienced squad with little youth, many of the players will be looking at this as their final chance to bring a Copa America back to Bogotá.

With a 6-1 drubbing from Ecuador in qualifiers back in November, expectations are relatively tame. However, new coach Rueda has inspired a 3-0 thrashing of Peru so they might be hitting form at the right time.

Likely Starting Line-Up: (4-4-2) Ospina, Medina, Murillo, Sanchez, Mojica, Murial, Uribe, Barrios, Díaz, Zapata, Morelos

Key Player: Duván Zapata has never really stepped up for Colombia, with only three goals in 16 games. However, without Falcao and Rodriguez, the 30-year-old needs to produce on the international stage if Colombia wants to go far.

Young Player to Watch: An incredibly old squad, so 24 isn’t exactly young, but Luis Díaz could have a breakout tournament. The Porto winger had a solid campaign, with an eye for a killer pass. The creative winger could even be moved into a no 7 role if Rueda wants to stick to what he knows. Also, check out the screamer he scored in the Champions League against Man City.

Ecuador

The world rankings place Ecuador as the 2nd lowest South American team going into the Copa America. However, they’ve been playing great football in the World Cup qualifiers, winning three of six games and two of those losses coming to Argentina and Brazil.

Coach Alfaro has been doing a great job with many relatively unknown players, playing with a high press and a direct style.

Stability is the central narrative going into this tournament, with Arboleda and Arreaga forming a terrific partnership at the back. Pervis Estupinan was part of the Villarreal squad that shutdown Man Utd in the Europa League final. Underrated attacking talent has also contributed to fourteen goals in six games so far during World Cup Qualifying. Estrada leads the line, with Mena likely to be moved into attacking midfield after his excellent display against Columbia.

Ecuador is one of the few South American nations going into this tournament with a positive form. It will, however, be a massive ask for this nation to go all the way. The tournament format means they should make the quarter finals, with only 1 team being eliminated from 2 groups of 5.

Likely Starting Line-up: (4-2-3-1) Domínguez, Preciado, Arboleda, Arreaga, Estupinan, Caicedo, Méndez, Plata, Mena, Martínez, Estrada

Key Player: Obvious star quality is not found here, but Estupinan is the clear star of the team. The left-back is a consistent starter for La Liga outfit Villarreal. Alfaro has experimented with him also, deploying him on the wing against Bolivia in a 3-2 away win. With little quality, however, unity and togetherness will be essential if Ecuador want to go far.

Young Player to Watch: As talented as Campana is, he will unlikely play ahead of Estrada. Recent Brighton signing Moises Caicedo has drawn comparisons to N’golo Kante. The word generational has been thrown out, with Graham Potter giving him the time he needs to adjust to a new culture. The stage is set for him to dominated the midfield at Copa America.

Peru

Peru has been perennial overachievers of late, reaching the final of the Copa America in 2019 and, although crashing out in the groups of the 2018 World Cup, playing terrific football doing it.

This revolution has come from coach Gareca who introduced an effective defence first, with electric counter-attacking. Despite this, Peru is in dire need of rejuvenation. 37-year-old Peruvian legend and captain Paolo Guerrero still leads the line, with Lapadula and Ruidiaz failing to make the position their own. A fundamental lack of quality youth throughout also has created an ageing problem throughout the squad. However, that does come with tournament experience, and Peru’s recent outings are something to be hopeful about.

36-year-old Julian Farfan would be starting; however, an injury has left him at home. Injuries have been a problem going into the tournament, Celta Vigo star Renato Tapia faces a race against time for fitness.

An awful start to the qualifiers has hampered expectations, although they have arguably played and lost to 3 of the best teams in South America, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. Gareca hopes that the experienced side will capitalise on the 7-month gap between South American games.

Likely Starting Line-Up: (4-2-3-1) Gallase, Advíncula, Abram, Zambrano, Trauco, Aquino, Tapia, Carillo, Cueva, Flores, Guerrero

Key Player: Tapia is arguably the best player. Whether he will be fit is another matter. The key man on this side is Ricardo Gareca, the manager. Can he revitalise this ageing squad to have another run at the Copa America?

Young Player to Watch: 21 year old Marcos Lopez from San Jose Earthquakes is worth keeping an eye on.

Venezuela

As one of only two teams without a Copa America title, fans hope that this current crop of players can at least go on a deep run. Head Coach Jose Peseiro will hope the ‘La Vinotinto’ (Red Wine) squad will age like a fine vintage. 

The Venezuela squad is a good blend of both experience and youth. Captain Rincón, Rondon, Rosales are all starters and above 30 with 277 caps together. Cásseres Jr. and Herrera make up a young energic duo in midfield. Young wonderkid goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez is poised for a breakout tournament after a great year in the Ligue 1 with Lens.

While the team possesses a lot of attacking talent, the defence is on the weaker side. The most prominent player being Wilker Ángel, who plays his trade in the Russian league for mid-table side Akhmat Grozny. This is why coach Perseiro tends to sacrifice possession favouring a regimented 4-1-4-1, using Rondon as an effective target man to launch counterattacks.

After a difficult start to qualifying, a crucial win against Chile with a late Rondon goal has put them back in the mix. Expectations are quietly optimistic. With Venezuela having a lot of talent coming through, a good tournament could be on the horizon.

Likely Starting Line-Up: (4-3-3) Faríñez, González, Ángel, Chancellor, Mago, Rincón, Cásseres Jr., Herrera, Savarino, Rondón, Machís

Key Player: All time Venezuela top goal scorer Salomon Rondon will likely shoulder the success of Venezuela. He is not only responsible for goals but is also crucial to the way Venezuela play. Similar to his tenure at Newcastle, how well he can hold the ball up on his own will define whether Venezuela can take on the big teams.

*Rondon has since been ruled out of the tournament with injury (12/06/2021)*

Young Player to Watch: All eyes will be on Yangel Herrera, the Manchester City loanee at Granada. The 23-year-old will be looking to impress as it is unlikely he will get a squad role at City. His time at Granada was impressive as a skilled box to box midfielder, and he could thrive with the experienced Rincón behind him helping throughout.

Predictions

Winner: Brazil should walk it in truth, especially now they have hosting duties. However, it was rumoured that some Brazilian players would boycott the tournament, briefly giving hope to those less fancied sides. Everybody else is considered a dark horse in truth compared to Brazil. Argentina and Uruguay are the closest competition.

Top Goalscorer: Difficult to predict, as there isn’t a clear favourite in this category. However, with the easier of the two groups, and an incredible supporting cast around him, it feels like Neymar might make this tournament his own. With Messi likely taking a deeper role, don’t rule out Lautaro Martínez being on the end of his incredible passing ability.

Dark Horses: With such a chaotic pre-tournament preparation for most teams, Ecuador has been trending in the right direction for some time now. Third in qualifiers, with one of the most promising young players at the tournament, we could see Ecuador better a previous best finish of 4th place in 1993.  

Biggest flop: Despite having experience on their side, this Chile team might be too old at this point. New manager, and potentially no Vidal for the first two games. A high fitness Bolivian side could easily beat a Chile without Vidal. Outside of that, though, Peru is ageing, and don’t have the talent to begin with, unlike Chile.

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