As we look ahead to July’s Copa America, here’s the first of our three-part preview by the wonderful Ed Malyon, looking at Group A.
Looking at group A, you’d be forgiven for thinking it a forgone conclusion, and it’s hard to disagree that hosts Argentina are the only side that look like winning this.
The squad has immense strength and depth, and there are no glaring omissions like we saw under Maradona where Zanetti and Cambiasso were inexplicably omitted from World Cup duty. The doubts over Tevez’ and Aguero’s inclusions were settled very recently but neither are likely to start. Sergio ‘Checho’ Batista is trying to mimic Barcelona’s style of play and favours a front three of Di Maria, Lavezzi and Messi; with the flea playing the ‘false 9’ role that he occupies at club level.
Any weakness is probably at left-back where Insua and Rojo will compete for a starting berth. Both are good players but neither are top international level players like their esteemed colleagues. There’s also questions between the sticks where the choice will be between Sergio Romero of AZ Alkmaar, who is a decent shot-stopper but is seemingly reluctant to catch the ball, and Juan Pablo Carizzo, who has been excellent for River Plate until two high profile errors recently.
Star Player: Who else, the best player on the planet – Leo Messi
One to watch: Ever Banega plays a vital role in Batista’s side.
Prediction: Tournament runners-up.
Colombia should be the main challengers to Argentina’s predicted dominance in the group, with a strong first XI – particularly in attack. Blessed with raiding full-backs, one of Europe’s most prolific centre-forwards and some talented players you’ll not have heard too much about, they will certainly back themselves to qualify from this group, but the second round fixture is likely to be very tough.
Their main weakness is beyond the first team, so it will be vital for them to keep everyone fit and to avoid suspensions if they are to upset the odds and perhaps get to the semi-finals.
Star Player: Falcao scored bucketloads of goals in an incredible season for FC Porto, if Colombia give him service then they’ll be in with a chance.
One to watch: Teofilo Gutierrez. ‘Teo’ returned to South America this season following a brief period with Trabzonspor in Turkey. He signed for Racing in Argentina and has been one of the most potent strikers in the league.
Prediction: Eliminated in the quarter-finals.
Costa Rica are late replacements for Japan who had to withdraw in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. At full strength, Costa Rica would be a tricky proposition that would look to challenge Colombia for second place in this group but this won’t be the case. As a CONCACAF member, they are contractually obliged to play in the Gold Cup in June. Therefore the team with the likes of Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges and Cristian Bolaños are heading to the US and are exceedingly unlikely to feature in Argentina. It’ll be most likely their Olympic under-23 side in preparation for London 2012.
Star player: The experienced defender Gilberto Martinez (Sampdoria) was left out of the Gold Cup squad. On the assumption he is heading to Argentina, he’ll have a big role to play in a youthful and inexperienced squad at international level.
One to watch: Esteban Alvarado is contracted to AZ Alkmaar in Holland, and with a weakened team in front of him, the young keeper will need to be at his best if the Ticos want to progress.
Prediction: First plane home, missing out on a best third-placed spot
Bolivia may be one of the minnows of South American football, but one of their greatest moments came only recently with a 6-1 thumping of Argentina in La Paz. Their best results have always come at home, where the dizzying altitude is a real advantage. They are rank outsiders for the entire competition and with just a brief look at their squad it’s obvious why. Captain and centre-half Ronald Raldes is a key player for them, and is one of only a few players that ply their trade outside Bolivia (playing as he does for Colón in Argentina). Their main threat will come from the two young European-based forwards in the squad; Marcelo Moreno (Shakhtar Donetsk, briefly of Wigan) and Ricardo Pedriel (Sivassppor, Turkey).
Star Player: Marcelo Moreno scored goals in the Brazillian league and has played for Shakhtar, Werder Bremen and Wigan. The Verde will need his top-flight experience and goalscoring to have a chance of progress.
One to watch: If he makes the squad, then young Gilbert Alvarez (Cruzeiro, Brazil) is a striker with nothing to lose and buckets of ability.
Prediction: Rock-bottom of the group and heading home at the first hurdle.