Copa America: Host Could Surprise; Argentina the Favorite

As you might have heard, the 2015 Copa America begins on Thursday night with an intriguing opener between host Chile and Ecuador. This is almost certainly a contest between two teams that will qualify for the quarterfinals, as the rest of Group A features a second-string Mexico team that has clearly made next month’s Concacaf Gold Cup its priority, while Bolivia is -- let’s just say -- the clear underdog to get out of this group. 

It’s somewhat surprising to see that the host hasn’t been universally acknowledged as a favorite to win this tournament. While Argentina and Brazil are understandably the top two, Chile has as good a chance as any of the rest of lifting its first-ever title this summer. For starters, if the 2014 World Cup was any indicator, there will be fantastic support for the host nation, which you’ll recall, was very, very unlucky to bow out in the round of 16, losing to Brazil on penalties. Jorge Sampaoli’s men are well-organized side that works extremely hard for each other. They also have an undoubted star at the peak of his powers in Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez. If Juventus midfield general Arturo Vidal can control the middle in key games and Sanchez finishes most of his good chances, the pair could lead Chile to glory.

Group B features tournament favorite Argentina, defending champ Uruguay, Paraguay and Jamaica, the other CONCACAF invitee to the South American championship alongside Mexico. On paper, this might seem a tough group, but Paraguay, since finishing runner-up at the 2011 Copa America in Venezuela, has basically fallen off a cliff, easily failing to qualify for last summer’s World Cup and not showing any signs of improvement since. In fact, Jamaica might be a strong defensive performance or two from finding its way into the quarterfinals.

Obviously, Argentina and Uruguay are the favorites to progress from Group B, but the latter will struggle to create chances and goals without the suspended Luis Suarez. That said, Uruguay boasts one of the best defensive center-back pairings in the tournament in Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and his protégé, Jose Gimenez, making them hard to score on.

All eyes will be on Argentina, though. Despite Brazil’s ten-game winning streak since last summer’s World Cup humiliation, the Albiceleste had to be the favorite to win its first trophy in 22 years. Captain Lionel Messi has just completed possibly his best season at Barcelona; he now creates nearly as many chances as he does score goals, and with Carlos Tevez (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli), Angel Di Maria (Manchester United) and Ezequiel Lavezzi (Paris Saint-Germain) behind him, Argentina should easily have the best forward line in the tournament—not to mention its excellent defense and solid midfield. Given the season that most of the players in its squad have had at club level, this tournament is Argentina’s to lose -- assuming that the pressure to end the country’s trophy drought doesn’t overwhelm coach Gerardo Martino & co. 

In Group C, Brazil and Colombia are the clear favorites to progress, while Venezuela, which has shown tremendous progress in recent years, can score goals, and Peru can be a tricky opponent. While the latter two will most likely compete for one of the two third-place slots to get to the quarterfinals, Brazil and Colombia will likely duke it out for first-place. 

Brazil seems to have regained its confidence in the wake of the disaster that was the end of the 2014 World Cup, with defensive tactician Dunga, in his second stint in charge of the national team, swapping out some of the country’s samba style for a more pragmatic approach. But a new approach and the opportunity to start again is exactly what these players needed, and some impressive results, including a 2-0 win away to Argentina last fall, back up the fact that Brazil is back. Not to be overlooked is the fact that since the World Cup, the Seleccao has conceded just two goals in ten games. While it may be too early for Brazil to win this year’s Copa, it should at least make it to the semis.

Like Brazil, Colombia has been on a role since the World Cup, too, having won seven in a row since a 1-0 loss to Brazil immediately following the 2014 tournament. As Jose Pekerman’s men showed last summer, Colombia has some terrific players, and the squad could be bolstered by the return of AS Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, who missed the World Cup. James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Jackson Martinez (FC Porto) and Carlos Bacca (Sevilla) all had great seasons with their respective clubs, while Juan Cuadrado (Chelsea) and Falcao will be keen to use the tournament to reinvigorate their careers.

Notwithstanding an excellent midfield and attack, Colombia’s two weaknesses could be its defense and the fact that it hasn’t exactly faced the strongest competition during its recent seven-game win streak. To be sure, Los Cafeteros will be tested in Chile. 

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