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Any list of the world's elite teams always includes Argentina. It includes Brazil, Germany, Spain, even France and Italy. It also always includes Argentina, but why? Yes, they are full of talent and they have two World Cup and 14 Copa America titles under their belt, but when was the last time they won a senior team trophy? You would have to go back all the way to 1993 for that when they won the Copa America championship.
At least recently, Argentina has been anything but a world power. They made it to the final in the last two Copa Americas, where they lost to Brazil both times, and that is nothing to be ashamed of, but prior to that they hadn't even made the semifinals since their 1993 title. They haven't made it to the semifinals of the World Cup since a final appearance in 1990 and in 2002 didn't even make it out of the group stage. That's hardly an elite team in the world.
Copa America 2011 can change that though. Argentina are hosting the tournament for the first time since 1987 and they have the world's best player in Lionel Messi, something they last had when Diego Maradona led the team to Copa America and World Cup titles. Also, while South America may have more depth than they have had in a while, Brazil isn't the uber elite team that they have been in the past. The road to Argentina's first major senior trophy is wide open for La Abiceleste.
The focus of the Argentina team will be Messi and for good season. He's the best player in the world and coming off of the best season of his career. He scored 53 goals and added 24 assists as Barcelona won both La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. It was yet another great season in a great player's career, but that hasn't quite translated to his play with Argentina. He's scored two goals for every three matches for Barcelona, but just one for every 3.25 matches for Argentina. If Argentina are to win Copa America, they will need a best player in the world tournament from the best player in the world.
One thing that Argentina knows they will be getting now is better management. At the 2010 World Cup, they were completely outmatched tactically as the naive Diego Maradona was exposed by more experienced and sophisticated managers. Now Sergio Batista is in charge of the team and they are better for it.
For one, top players are not being left out of the team because of some personal grudge or other strange reason that only Maradona really knows. Esteban Cambiasso is back. You know, that guy who won the Champions League with Inter Milan and is widely regarded as one of the best central midfielders in the world, but didn't play in the World Cup because Maradona said so. With him back and being able to put him next to Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega gives the team an incredible midfield.
With some actual tactics and a midfield behind an attacking trio that can distribute and tackle, Argentina will actually be able to play with shape and precision. That's a scary idea for teams that are looking at Messi, Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi running at them. The question will be whether or not their backline can hold up.
If the backline holds up, Argentina could be looking at a Copa America title. They can win the trophy in Buenos Aires then parade it around the country. Lose it though and Argentina are underachievers yet again with an entire country ready to point the blame at each and everyone involved as the trophy drought continues.
Lionel Messi: This one may seem obvious, but there's more to it than the best player in the world is going to be the best player for Argentina. Mesis hasn't quite been the best for Argentina, struggling to play to the same level he's played at for Barcelona. With Copa America being hosted by Argentina, the pressure is on Messi to take the tournament by storm and dominate. If Argentina doesn't win, Messi will likely bear the brunt of the blame, fairly or unfairly.
The Argentineans were outclassed at the World Cup by Germany and didn't look like an elite team, but that was in part due to the mismanagement of Diego Maradona. With Sergio Batista the manager now and top players like Esteban Cambiasso back in the squad, the home support and the world's best player, Messi, Argentina will win their first Copa America since 1993.
Going into the 2010 World Cup, almost all of the South American nations were hyped up. Brazil and Argentina were, at worst, the second and third favorites behind eventual winners Spain. Brazil were more practical than usual under Dunga, while Argentina had - and still has - the best player in the world in Lionel Messi. Uruguay had the eventual Golden Ball winner in Diego Forlan, while everyone was intrigued by Marcelo Bielsa's Chile. Paraguay were almost certainly the least discussed South American nation, but apparently that didn't bother them. They advanced past quality sides like Italy and Japan en route to a quarterfinal appearance, where they were defeated by eventual champions Spain.
Paraguay are yet to name a final squad, but their preliminary squad includes almost all of the players who guided them to their impressive finish in South Africa. One notable omission is Oscar Cardozo, who after years of scoring in buckets for club and missing sitters for country, started missing sitters this year as well. Seeing him dropped to the bench in favor of Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios and Nelson Valdez wouldn't be shocking, but seeing him miss the preliminary squad entirely was a bit stunning.
Still, it's not like Paraguay will miss him. Besides those three players, they also have youngster Federico Santander from Toulouse and Olimpia star Pablo Zeballos to pick from. In goal, defense, and in midfield, Paraguay have great quality in the starting lineup but minimal depth. At striker, they have both.
In South Africa, Paraguay alternated between two and three striker formations, usually going with the latter. Lately, in all of their friendlies this season, they have opted for a 4-4-2 formation. Newell's Old Boys winger Marcelo Estigarribia has been a staple, while the other wing spot has rotated between Osvaldo Martinez, Edgar Barreto, Jonathan Santana and Hernan Perez. Barreto seems to be first choice at the moment, but it's certainly not set in stone.
Up top, it seems as though Valdez may be the odd man out, with Santa Cruz and Barrios occupying the starting spots. Any two of the three would make a great tandem in a 4-4-2, but the experience of Santa Cruz along with the form of Barrios trumps Valdez, who is somewhere in the middle on both accounts.
The center of midfield is another serious strong spot for Paraguay, and their holding players are going to make it very difficult for any of their opponents to play through the middle. Though things haven't worked out at all for Cristian Riveros at Sunderland, he was a staple of the team in the World Cup and he will probably continue to start in the middle. Next to him should be Victor Caceres, who was also ever-present during the World Cup. Caceres is one of the best players in the world who has never played his football professionally in Europe, and he makes up a fantastic midfield pairing with Riveros.
Paraguay's defense lacks the experience and star power that the rest of the team has, but they have proven reliable in the past and while the members of that back line aren't playing for Europe's biggest clubs, they are reasonably accomplished. Dario Veron and Paulo da Silva have both won multiple league titles in Mexico, while Aureliano Torres has an Argentine Primera title under his belt. On pure talent they might be out-matched against South America's elite, but they've shown that they have the ability to get the job done, especially with the two great holding midfielders in front of them and a very good goalkeeper in Justo Villar behind them.
While they have not been handed an easy group, Paraguay should be able to finish in second place and advance to the quarterfinals of the competition. Ecuador and Venezuela both have a couple of fantastic game-changing stars, but nowhere near the depth and complete squad that Paraguay has. Of course, Brazil are the favorites and anything less than nine points for them would be a minor letdown, while anything but first place in the group would be a complete letdown. Paraguay need to avoid a loss to Ecuador, do damage control against Brazil, then defeat Venezuela convincingly.
GK Justo Vilar LB Aureliano Torres CB Dario Veron CB Paulo da Silva RB Marcos Caceres CM Victor Caceres CM Cristian Riveros LM Marcelo Estigarribia RM Edgar Barreto ST Lucas Barrios ST Roque Santa Cruz
Lucas Barrios - The Borussia Dortmund man hasn't quite scored at the same rate for his country as he does for his club, but Barrios has a few big goals and has shown that he can be a top player for Paraguay. In the Bundesliga, he's established himself as one of the league's top strikers and his goal scoring rate is impeccable. He's put in big performances against Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, so there's no question that Barrios knows how to get it done and find the net in massive pressure situations.
The first game of the tournament against Ecuador will likely determine Paraguay's fate. They should lose to Brazil and defeat Venezuela, so getting points out of the first match and avoiding third place in the group will be big. If Paraguay avoid Argentina or the winner of Group C, they're in a decent position to make the semifinals. Based on the potential teams that they can draw in the knockout stages, Paraguay aren't favorites to get past the round of eight, but a semifinal run isn't too farfetched.
Rarely, over the last couple of decades, have Colombian teams lacked talent. The most famous failing of the team is the 1994 World Cup, in which a world class Colombian side was upset by the United States, resulting in the tragic murder of Andres Escobar, but it is only their most high profile failing. The Colombian national team has underachieved at every single major tournament except for Copa America 2001, which they hosted and won. Many consider this victory tainted, as Argentina did not participate in the tournament due to safety concerns.
Colombia has a new generation of stars, and they are perhaps the most talented since the 1994 World Cup team. Radamel Falcao has been unbelievable over the last two seasons for FC Porto, culminating in him setting the scoring record for European competition in one season and winning the Europa League. He won't have to do it alone, though, as all of Hugo Rodallega, Jackson Martinez and Dayro Moreno are excellent players.
Falcao's Porto teammate Fredy Guarin will be a key fixture in a Colombia midfield that is very talented, but also very thin. Guarin has been a national team member for some time, but struggled to get playing time at Porto before Raul Meireles moved on to Liverpool. Last season he finally broke through with the Porto first team, playing a number of games in both the league and the Europa League. His play and his combinations with the forwards will be key for Colombia.
Los Cafeteros don't seem to have settled on a formation, leaving us to wonder whether they will be a team who adjusts their shape based on which players are in form and who they're playing. the team has used a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2, and a 4-4-1-1 shape in their friendly matches this year and they have the personnel to play all of them. However, they're loaded at striker, their strikers are all able to play wide and in the middle, and they're thin in midfield in general and especially when it comes to two-way wingers. So, this would seem to point to a likely 4-3-3 shape for Colombia.
They open their campaign against Costa Rica's B team, and anything less than an emphatic win will get the alarm bells ringing in Colombia. Their second match is against Argentina, who they are expected to lose to. Their third match is against Bolivia, which should also be a blowout win. Anything that strays from the norm would be an absolute shock in this group, seeing as Argentina are the favorites to win the tournament while Boliva and Costa Rica are almost certainly the worst and second worst teams in the tournament.
Colombia are a solid team with some serious talent, but it's unlikely we'll know anything about them until the quarterfinals hit. They should beat Bolivia and Costa Rica comfortably while losing to Argentina, and anything deviating from that would be downright shocking. In the quarterfinals, we'll find out who Colombia really are.
GK David Ospina LB Pablo Armero CB Mario Yepes CB Cristian Zapata RB Juan Zuñiga CM Abel Aguilar CM Carlos Sanchez AM Fredy Guarin LF Dayro Moreno RF Hugo Rodallega CF Radamel Falcao
Radamel Falcao - The single season European competition scoring record speaks for itself. Falcao has been absolutely stunning this season for Porto, and if Colombia has any chance of taking down one of South America's big two - or the second tier of Chile and Uruguay for that matter - Falcao probably needs to be at his best. He is yet to duplicate his club scoring record for his country, but this tournament would be a great place to start.
How far Colombia goes is probably entirely dependent on their quarterfinal draw. They should take second in their group, and who knows after that. Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile could be their potential quarterfinal opponents. All three would probably be favored against Colombia, but they're talented enough to make it to the semifinals. However, it will likely be lights out when they run into Argentina or Brazil.
Quick, who is the fourth-best team in the world? If the World Cup is the barometer then the correct answer is Uruguay. World Cup results aren't the best way to determine the best teams in the world and Uruguay isn't the best team in the world, but it was quite a run for the men in blue and white in South Africa. The ably played the role of Cinderella, going all the way to the semifinals thanks to the exploits of the tournament's Golden Ball winner, Diego Forlan, Africa's Hand of the Devil, Luis Suarez, and the criminally underrated Diego Lugano.
While undoubtedly the 2010 World Cup's Cinderella, success on the part of the Uruguayans is not too much of a surprise. After all, their front line consists of Forlan, Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Lugano anchors the backline with the strong Diego Godin. They can bring players like Nicolas Lodeiro and Walter Gargano off the bench. Uruguay is a team packed with talent.
Success in Copa America isn't foreign to La Celeste either, advancing to at least the semifinals in four consecutive tournament. Four years ago they finished in fourth-place, losing in the semifinals to eventual champions Brazil, but not until they had gone all the way to penalty kicks. In Copa America 2004 they also made it to the semifinals, again losing to Brazil in penalty kicks before winning the third-place match. In 2001 they also made the semifinals, losing to Mexico, and in 1999 they advanced to the final before losing to Brazil.
This time around, Uruguay won't be looking for just a fifth consecutive semifinal appearance. Sure, Brazil and Argentina remain the favorites, while Paraguay and Chile are tough teams, but Uruguay has a Copa America title on their minds and for good reason.
Few teams can claim the attacking talent of Uruguay with the aforementioned attacking trio of Forlan, Suarez and Cavani. Forlan didn't just pick up the Golden Ball in the World Cup after tying for the tournament lead in scoring. He's scored five times for Uruguay since. Suarez had three goals of his own at the World Cup and proved his quality at Liverpool this spring after dominating the Eredivisie for three and a half year. Oh yeah, and then there's Cavani, often overlooked, but quickly becoming one of the best attackers there is with a sublime combination of size, speed and skill that helped him score 33 times for Napoli this season.
While they will line up with Gaston Ramirez, Suarez and Cavani underneath Forlan, it's not really a balanced or true 3-1 attacking formation. Forlan does play the role of target man, gathering the ball and laying it off for his teammates, but it would be dishonest to call Suarez or Cavani midfielders. They are forwards or wingers, your choice.
Suarez will push up high, just underneath Forlan, or even at times right next to Forlan. He's a smart player who likes to pick his spots and is very active, moving about the field to find open space wherever it may be. Like Forlan and Suarez, Cavani is big and strong and is dangerous in the air as well. As active as Suarez may be, Cavani is more so. He will lineup out wide, but will cut in regularly and find himself central. That suits him well too because few players in the world are as good as he is at making runs from deep into the box and getting on the end of crosses.
What makes Uruguay's attacking trio so difficult to defend is how capable they are at pretty much everything in the attacking half. All three are strong with the shortest of them, Forlan, being the target man who can bring the ball down and wear on defenders as well as anyone. They all have ferocious shots from distance. All three are also dangerous when they run at defenses and all can slide out wide to create plays out there as well as finish in near goal. With the three of them being able to do so much and their constant moving, it is very difficult for any defense to keep them all under check.
It's easy to look at Uruguay's three-headed monster and be amazed. There is no doubt that they are the heart of the team and for the most part, Uruguay will go as far as Forlan, Suarez and Cavani take them. That said, they are formidable at the back. They won't be the stingiest of defenses, but they can more than do their job with Lugano and Godin handling the dirty work in the middle. This is a team that allowed just two goals in their first five World Cup matches last summer so clean sheets are not rare for La Celeste.
It is that strong back line that allows the attacking players to fly forward with abandon. None of Uruguay's attacking trio is asked to do much defending. Instead, they look to pick out goals and few, if any teams in Copa America will have three players who can light up the scoreboard quite like Uruguay.
GK Fernando Muslera LB Martin Caceres CB Diego Godin CB Diego Lugano RB Maxi Pereira CM Diego Perez CM Egidio Arevalo LM Gaston Ramirez ACM Luis Suarez RM Edinson Cavani ST Diego Forlan
Edinson Cavani - When talking about the Uruguayan attack the focus is usually on Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, but this might be the summer when people start focusing on Edinson Cavani. He is coming off of a sensational season for Napoli and is capable of creating chances and goals from absolutely nothing, something that will prove valuable with the aging Forlan coming off a sub-par season.
It will be somewhat of a changing of the guard for Uruguay this summer. Diego Forlan will continue to be good, but he will not have to be the center of the attack at all times. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will pick up the slack and Uruguay will be back in the semifinals, but once again Brazil will get the best of them in another hard fought match.
Copa America 2011 begins with hosts Argentina taking on Bolivia on July 1, leaving us plenty of time to talk about all of the teams involved in the competition before they kick off the tournament. Brazil and Argentina are the most glamorous teams in the world and more or less joint favorites for this competition, but there are plenty of other teams deserving of some recognition.
Yes, we'll be covering Brazil and Argentina, but we'll also be covering the other 10 teams involved in the tournament. After their entertaining performances in World Cup qualifying and the 2010 World Cup itself, both Uruguay and Chile deserve equal time, and the likes of Colombia, Paraguay, and invitees Mexico shouldn't be left behind either.
In the build-up to the tournament, we'll have previews on all of the teams involved before Argentina and Bolivia kick off the tournament a week from Friday. The fun will start with Uruguay and finish with Brazil.
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