Copa America’s group B begins its schedule on Sunday, a doubleheader that includes the tournament debut of defending champions Brazil. Rupert Fryer provides snapshots of the South American championship’s deepest group:
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Brazil arrive in Argentina this month in pursuit of their third straight Copa America title and their fifth in six attempts – a recent record that has seen the Selecao haul themselves to within six of Uruguay and the hosts, who are tied on 14 a piece. They’ll hope to get off to the perfect start against Venezuela on Sunday. Since his appointment almost one year ago, coach Mano Menezes has worked hard to reinvent the identity of Brazilian soccer following the reactionary Dunga era that ended with such disappointment at the World Cup.
“I think playing with three forwards is a worldwide trend,” he said at his press conference on Friday, adding, “[but] our formation has a little more creativity in the middle because Ganso is typical playmaker who has more quality to do that than midfielders in the other teams [at the competition].”
Brazil boasts a frightening front three in Robinho, Pato and Neymar, but, unlike their rivals (Argentina), there are no question marks over its defense, with Lucio recalled to the squad to form what’s looking a solid partnership with Thiago Silva.
Despite reaching the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in its history last year, it’s not quite clear if Paraguay have made any real improvement since South Africa. The same problems persist, with coach Gerardo Martino unable to find the type of midfielder than can help his team retain possession and provide a creative spark. But the team has retained its strong collective and has an experienced and canny coach who isn’t afraid to switch his tactics mid-game, with the likes of Nelson Valdez, Aureliano Torres, Carlos Bonet, and Cristian Riveros all providing versatility.
Paraguay can also count on one of the in-form strikers in Europe this season, with Borussia Dortmund’s Argentinian-born striker Lucas Barrios desperate to continue his goalscoring exploits following what was a disappointing World Cup campaign (for him, personally).
“We need to hold the ball and not lose it [so] quickly,” says Martino, “then look and analyze the [right] time for a quick attack.”
With Paraguay looking relatively solid in midfield and at the back, the responsibility to make Paraguay’s counterattacks decisive will lie with Valdez, Barrios and Roque Santa Cruz.
One of the three CONMEBOL nations never to have won the competition, Ecuador looks unlikely to break that duck this year. Having failed to make the World Cup last year after consecutive appearances in 2002 and 2006, coach Reinaldo Rueda is overseeing a transitional period for a team that is yet to find replacements for the likes of Agustin Delgado and, perhaps the greatest player in its history, Alex Aguinaga.
One of those attempting to fill Delgado’s sizeable shoes is Felipe Caicedo, who got his career back on track with Levante this season following an unproductive time with Manchester City. Another forward EPL experience is Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez. It will be his job to use his pace and trickery to support Caicedo.
Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia is Ecuador’s standout star and will play a vital role on the right side of Rueda’s 4-2-3-1, looking to get beyond the full-backs and cross for Caicedo.
Their preparations have been hampered slightly by disappointing friendly results, and amongst the fans there has been a growing resentment towards the coach. The Ecuadorian Football Federation isn’t perturbed, though, insisting this month’s competition is all about development.
“[Rebuilding the team] is key to our aspirations to reach the World Cup in Brazil,” says FEF President Luis Chiriboga. “There are young players who can contribute to the team. It’s not just [about] results; people must understand that it is a process.”
The only country on the continent where soccer isn’t the major sport, Venezuela has emerged in recent years to a point where it harbours serious ambitions of reaching its first ever World Cup in 2014. That journey begins this month. Having missed out on the opportunity of a playoff for a spot in South Africa by just two points in the last round of CONMEBOL qualification, La Vinotinto is at possibly the most crucial stage of its soccer history. Juan Arango has played a huge role in the emergence of the sport, providing Venezuelan soccer with a true idol. His experience will be vital to his country’s chances of emerging from the group.
Symbolizing what Venezuelans hope will be a bright future are 21 year-old Jose Salomon Rondon, who has enjoyed a hugely successful season which saw him net 14 times in Spain’s La Liga with Malaga, and 20-year-old Yohandry Orozco, a skillful left-footed forward. While their biggest test will come in the opening fixture, Farias insists his team are ready.
“We respect Brazil, but we don’t fear [them]," he says. "They have their weapons with their forwards … but through hard work Venezuela has developed enough to face them.”