Previewing the Copa America
The 43rd edition of the Copa America kicks off in La Plata on Friday. Here's a preview of each of the twelve sides taking part.
Diego Maradona never quite knew how to use Lionel Messi for Argentina, but Sergio Batista is in no doubt. Observing Messi's false nine role at Barcelona keenly, he has concluded that the way to get the best out of Messi at the international level is to try to replicate Pep Guardiola's system, so Argentina will line up with a 4-3-3 with Messi at the center of the attacking trio, with license to drop deep.
Messi is likely to be joined -- perhaps surprisingly -- by Napoli's Ezequiel Lavezzi and Real Madrid's Angel Di Maria, which means that Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Diego Milito will all have to be content with a place on the bench, where they'll be joined by Javier Pastore in an amazingly exciting attacking squad. Batista is keen on keeping the shape of the side, but the sheer range of options may find him turning to his bench -- his plan B is a 4-2-1-3, where he'd be able to use four of the aforementioned eight players.
In the 4-3-3, Ever Banega will link midfield and attack, while Javier Mascherano will sit deep in front of his defense. The third midfielder could be Esteban Cambiasso, although Anderlecht's Lucas Biglia has been a more regular starter under Batista.
Like at last summer's World Cup, Argentina's weaknesses are at the back. The goalkeeping position is still up for grabs, with Sergio Romero the favorite, and Juan Pablo Carrizo -- amazingly, the only player in the squad based in Argentina -- the challenger. A back four of Javier Zanetti, Nicolas Burdisso, Gabriel Milito and Marcos Rojo is expected, prompting serious questions about the lack of pace in the center. That could mean Argentina will be forced to defend too deep, and suffer the same lack of compactness that exposed it so obviously in the crushing 4-0 defeat to Germany last summer.
Mano Menezes' first year in charge of Brazil started impressively with a confident 2-0 win over the U.S. in August, but that has been the high point so far. Wins over Ukraine, Scotland and Romania haven't been enough to compensate for the disappointing performances against Netherlands, France and Argentina, matches in which Brazil failed to score a goal. As discussed before, Menezes started off trying to distance himself from the unpopular reign of his predecessor Dunga, but has gradually brought back old Dunga favorites, and has occasionally set his team out in a very similar way.
That said, with Santos whiz kids Ganso and Neymar in the squad and set to be part of Menezes' starting XI, this side does have a fresh feel to it. Having experimented with various systems throughout his tenure, it seems that a 4-2-1-3 shape will be Menezes' first choice in Argentina, with the classic No. 10 Ganso creating for a fluid front three of Neymar, Robinho and Pato. There are slight concerns about injury -- both Ganso and Pato were big doubts for this tournament at one point, and although they have been declared fit, Brazil aren't especially strong up front in squad terms, with Villarreal's Nilmar surprisingly omitted.
The all-Premiership duo of Lucas and Ramires is likely to be the central midfield duo -- the Liverpool man sits, while the Chelsea player has more freedom to sprint forward and link up with the attacking quartet. The back four will be a familiar-looking lineup -- Daniel Alves, Lucio, Thiago Silva and Andre Santos -- while Julio Cesar remains first choice in goal.
The key to Brazil's progress is the front four. We can be reasonably sure the defense will work well as a unit, and both Lucas and Ramires are the ultimate "you know what you're going to get" players. Each of the attacking quartet is very clever, but none guarantees a star performance -- at least one of them needs to step up and become Brazil's new golden boy. All eyes are on Neymar, but Ganso is an extremely talented and intelligent player who will enjoy having the side based around him.
Perhaps not as famous as South America's big two, but as the joint most successful side in the history of this competition (Uruguay and Argentina both have 14 titles apiece), and having been the continent's best side at last summer's World Cup, the Group C seeds are a force to be reckoned with.
That impressive World Cup performance means that, unlike Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has retained its manager from last year, Oscar Tabarez, who will be working with a very similar group of players.
There have been changes in reputation and performance since last summer's fourth-place finish in South Africa, however. Edinson Cavani was often on the bench in South Africa, but his move from Palermo to Napoli has turned him into one of Europe's best forwards. On the other hand, World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan has endured his worst-ever season in La Liga, registering just eight goals, and there are question marks about his mental state after a very public recent breakup with his fiancée.
Tabarez seems likely to use them both alongside Luis Suarez in an exciting attacking trio. The shape to the side is flexible, and like at the World Cup, Tabarez will use different formations against different opponents. The one constant will be a defensive-minded duo in midfield, almost certainly comprised of Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo. A more attack-minded player, either Ajax's Nicolas Lodeiro or Bologna's Gaston Ramirez, will join them, so 4-2-1-3 might turn out to be the team's starting shape.
Uruguay's strength in South Africa was its defense, and Maxi Pereira, Diego Lugano, Diego Godin and Martin Caceres will play ahead of Nestor Muslera in goal. Don't rule out a switch to three at the back against opponents playing two strikers -- that would mean Alvaro Pereira coming in as a left wing-back in place of the attacking midfielder, and his namesake Maxi pushing up on the other flank.
The outside bets
There are three other sides that have a genuine chance of getting to the final of this competition.
Chile was many neutrals' favorite at South Africa because of its attacking mentality, energetic pressing and unusual 3-3-1-3 formation, but after coach Marcelo Bielsa's departure for political reasons earlier this year, it remains to be seen how strong Chile will be. Udinese duo Mauricio Isla and Alexis Sanchez have a great relationship down the right flank, while Leverkusen's Arturo Vidal will be the man Chile looks to in the midfield.
Colombia hasn't qualified for a World Cup since 1998 and has slightly fallen off the radar in international terms, but it has an excellent generation of 24- and 25-year-old players who should have matured enough to have a real impact on this tournament. The back four is settled, and Porto's Falcao is a lethal finisher. The question is whether he'll get the service. Colombia should make it out of the group, but a record of three goalless games in its past five suggests it may struggle in the knockout phase.
Paraguay's coach Gerardo Martino resigned after last summer's World Cup but was then convinced to stay on until after this tournament. His side got to the quarterfinals in South Africa, where it was slightly unfortunate to be eliminated at the hands of Spain. The strong, physical nature of Paraguay and its basic 4-4-2 shape means it'll be tough to beat, and Lucas Barrios will provide goals.
The long shots
These six are unlikely to make the semifinals, but at least two of them will reach the quarterfinal stage.
Mexico is sending an Olympic squad to this tournament, comprised of under-23 players. This week's discipline problems hardly indicate that the team is in the right frame of mind for a genuine shot at the trophy, especially after the senior squad just won the Gold Cup.
Ecuador's star name is Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, though Rubin Kazan's Christian Noboa might be more of a key player since he provides clever balls from the center of midfield.
Peru has reached the quarterfinals for the past five tournaments. It possesses one of the best free-kick takers in the competition, in Fiorentina's Juan Manuel Vargas.
Bolivia has recorded some impressive results in recent years, but only at home when opponents can't cope with the altitude. The team is poor on the road.
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Venezuela is another one that does OK at home -- when hosting this competition in 2007, it reached the quarterfinals -- but that was partly because it was seeded, and a repeat performance is unlikely.
Costa Rica, a late replacement for Japan, joins Mexico in sending an Olympic squad, and progression from the group phase would be a huge surprise.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.