Copa Centenario Preview: Argentina without Messi still special

There was good news out of the Argentina camp on the eve of its opening game against Chile in the Copa Centenario: Injured Lionel Messiremains on its roster.

The bad news: He is still recovering from a back injury suffered 10 days earlier and will not start the opening game.

ARGENTINA. Coach Gerardo Martino said Benfica's Nicolas Gaitan would likely replace Messi as a starter against Chile. “Gaitan doesn't have to play as well as Leo, that would be an extra responsibility,” Martino said. “He needs to play his game. His job is to replace Leo, but I don’t expect him to do anything like Leo.”

Copa Centenario: TV Schedule

Argentina has plenty of other options to get by without Messi, at least for part of the tournament. Sergio Aguero has scored 136 goals in 207 games since joining Manchester City, and Gonzalo Higuain set a 66-year-old Serie A scoring record with 36 goals for Napoli in 2015-16.

The Albiceleste should have no problem getting through its group, but it will want to avoid Mexico in the quarterfinals. The goal is to win its first major title since the 1993 Copa America. Since then, it lost in the Copa America final in 2004, 2007 and 2015 and in the 2014 World Cup final. Add to that losses in the finals of the 1995 and 2005 Confederations Cup, and its been a long run of frustration for the Argentines.

Player you know. Things might have been different for Argentina at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America if Angel Di Maria had been healthy. He missed the World Cup final against Germany and limped off early with an injury against Chile last summer in the Copa America final. He has played for three different clubs in three years but is coming off a record-setting season (Ligue 1 record 18 assists) for Paris St. Germain.

Player you'll know soon enough. Ramiro Funes Mori  is Argentina's American connection. He and brother Rogelio (now at Monterrey) spent much of their youth in North Texas. Rogelio won the MLS Sueno contest and he and Ramiro played in the FC Dallas academy program before moving back home to begin their careers at River Plate. Ramiro joined Everton last fall and has seven caps for Argentina in the back since debuting in March 2015.

CHILE. La Roja is the tournament's defending champion, having won the title at home last summer with a shootout win over Argentina in the final. It was the shining moment for a golden generation of players -- Claudio Bravo, defender Gary Medel, midfielder Arturo Vidal and forward Alexis Sanchez -- and its Argentine coach, Jorge Sampaoli.

But Sampioli departed in January, and his replacement, fellow Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi, has found things harder. Chile lost to Argentina, 2-1, in World Cup 2018 qualifying in March and sits in fourth place after six games.

Chile lost both its Copa warmups -- 2-1 at home to Jamaica and 1-0 to Mexico in San Diego -- and is far from the dominating team it was last summer. Still, it has enough grit and talent and experience to be a title challenger.

Player you know.  Sanchez didn't match his first season at Arsenal when he scored 25 goals, but his haul of 17 goals in 2015-16 wasn't bad, considering he missed three months of the season with a hamstring problem.

Player you'll know soon enough.  Chile has a largely unchanged team from the Copa America -- indeed, 17 players remain from the World Cup team of two years ago -- but one newcomer to watch is 23-year-old center back Enzo Roco, who plays for Spanish club Espanyol but could join Sampioli at Lazio next season.

BOLIVIA.  Can Bolivia be as bad as it was in the 4-0 loss to the USA in their Copa Centenario tune-up 10 days ago? It has one win in six games in World Cup 2018 qualifying, but it can take hope from Venezuela, which beat Jamaica, 1-0, on Sunday in their Copa Centenario opener. La Vinotinto has all of one tie in six qualifiers.

Julio Cesar Baldivieso, who in 1994 played in Bolivia's only World Cup appearance since 1950, is confident La Verde can accomplish something in its return to the United States 22 years later.

"We'll leave everything on the playing field," he said. "The Bolivians are something special, they have something inside and when they know how to use it, they can be very successful."

Player you know.  Juan Carlos Arce is product of the famed Tahuichi youth program in Santa Cruz and has bounced around the world. The 31-year-old winger missed out on the 2015 Copa America, where he was a late cut, but this will be his fourth tournament after the 2004, 2007 and 2011 finals.

Player you'll know soon enough.  Alejandro Melean, who should start in midfield, was born and raised in South Florida and attended college at Holy Cross before breaking into pro soccer in Bolivia.

PANAMA.  The Canaleros were seconds away from qualifying for the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup when a goal by Graham Zusi in a 3-2 U.S. win killed their chances. But they didn't let that crushing defeat set back the national team program, finishing third at the 2015 Gold Cup ahead of the USA and winning their Copa Centenario playoff game against Cuba.

Veteran Colombian coach Hernan Dario Gomez says the Copa Centenario, the biggest tournament in which Panama has ever played, is huge responsibility for him.

"Facing rivals with a lot of experience and a lot of history — two are some of the best in the world," he said of Argentina and Chile. "We came here for that, to face the big guys."

Player you know.  Panama is loaded with current and former MLS players, but the key player is San Jose's Anibal Godoy. Since joining the Earthquakes last summer, he has been one of MLS's best central midfielders.

Player you'll know soon enough.  In a lineup otherwise largely unchanged from last summer's Gold Cup, 24-year-old Roderick Miller has stepped into the backline alongside Adolfo Machado, Luis Henriquez and captain Felipe Baloy, who have an average age of 33.

June 6 in Orlando, Florida
Panama vs. Bolivia, 7 pm, FS1, UniMas/UDN
June 6 in Santa Clara, California
Argentina vs. Chile, 10 pm, FS1, UniMas/UDN
June 10 in Foxborough, Massachusetts
Chile vs. Bolivia, 7 pm, Fox, UniMas/UDN
June 10 in Chicago, Illinois
Argentina vs. Panama, 9:30 pm, Fox, UniMas/UDN
June 14 in Philadelphia
Chile vs. Panama, 8 pm, FS1, UniMas/UDN
June 14 in Seattle
Argentina vs. Bolivia, 10 pm, FS1, UniMas/UDN

3 comments about "Copa Centenario Preview: Argentina without Messi still special".
  1. Scott Nelson, June 6, 2016 at 5:39 p.m.

    "who played on Bolivia's first and only World Cup team in 1994,..."

    Bolivia participated in the 1930 and 1950 World Cup as well.

    Editorial Standards, guys....

  2. Ric Fonseca, June 6, 2016 at 6:28 p.m.

    Gosh, if I didn't know any better, some teams are pulling the old bait-and-switcharoo, Uruguaz/Suarez, Argentina/Messi, lessee who else? Colombia has James injured during a game, so... quien mas? So folks pay big bucks to see these guys, and whamo! not available due to injury. Hey didn't the same happen last year when Messi was supposed to play in the US vs some other team, but "called in sick" and the folks seemed to be defrauded or something like that?

  3. beautiful game replied, June 6, 2016 at 10:09 p.m.

    Ric, as a fan of soccer, your commentary is quite demeaning. Surely, fans want to see the big names in action; but, sometimes they are not fit to play...the fraud u cite is the sponsors who charge outrageous ticket prices, not the players.

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