Vamos Copa America 2015

The 2015 Copa America kicks off on Thursday and if the form of the South American teams at last year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil is anything to go by then we should be in for a real treat.  Chile replaced the Brazilians as the host after the continent’s largest country requested some breathing space between last year’s event and next year’s Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.  The Chileans obliged and will be among the favourites on home turf.

However there will be 11 other nations on the continent’s west coast aiming for glory in what is arguably the world’s toughest continental competition, although Uefa might have something to say about that.  Nevertheless it is conceivably easier to win the World Cup than the Copa, or the Euro.  Here is my look at each of the competing sides followed by a prediction.  I must warn you though that the sides are quite evenly matched and to stick one’s neck out is a risk few would dare.  So here we go:

ARGENTINA

La Albiceleste reached the 2014 World Cup final and are South America’s highest ranked side according to FIFA.  They were pragmatic to say the least in Brazil under Alejandro Sabella but former Barcelona (and Paraguay) boss Gerardo Martino might have them playing differently.  Nevertheless this side comes to Chile as a serious title contender.

At Martino’s disposal are the likes of Pablo Zabaleta, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and a potentially devastating attack force consisting of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and irrepressible captain Lionel Messi.

The Argentines have won 14 Copas but last won it in 1993 and have only two titles since their 12th in 1959.  Two World Cup triumphs in 1978 and 1986 would have offered more than enough compensation but this country is in need of another trophy.  It’s overdue and it could happen in Chile.

BOLIVIA

El Verde have reached three World Cup finals tournaments, the last being USA 94, and actually lifted the continental trophy in 1963, but that is pretty much all this nation has had to cheer about in its history.  The days of strikers like Marco Etcheverry are long past and sadly the Bolivians are likely to make up the numbers in 2015.  They did reach the 1997 Copa final on home turf but their mountain fortress at Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, some 3 637 metres above sea level, will be of no help in this tournament.  A group stage exit is the likeliest outcome.

BRAZIL

Surprisingly the Brazilians had won just four Copas before 1997.  After defeating Bolivia in that final they have gone on to win another three to take the total to eight – more respectable for a country of its pedigree, what with five World Cup titles and all.  Dunga is back at the Selecao and this side is a perennial favourite for any competition it enters.  The former skipper led Brazil to the 2007 Copa in his first stint in charge and recent form suggests they have firmly put the 7-1 semi-final humiliation against Germany behind them and are on the up again.  Neymar captains a talented squad that will be there or thereabouts come the business end of the tournament but question marks remain over the defence.  Nevertheless, the Samba Kings will fancy their chances.

CHILE

The host nation has had its fair share of ups and downs in football.  In 1962 La Roja hosted the World Cup and finished third.  However they have had their moments where they have not qualified for the World Cup at all.  That said they have finished in the top four on 19 occasions at the Copa America, including four runners-up finishes.  Many feel their attacking style backed by a partisan home crowd could see them lift their maiden international title.

And why not?  Players like captain Claudio Bravo, Mauricio Isla, Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez make up a talented squad that makes coach Jorge Sampaoli the envy of many a rival.  Could this be Chile’s moment?  There is no reason why not.

COLOMBIA

Jose Pekerman’s side dazzled the world last year in Brazil until they virtually froze in the quarter-final against the hosts.  Los Cafeteros had all the tools to defeat the Brazilians but perhaps suffered from stage fright.  Captain Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado, James Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca will make life hard for most opponents.  The Colombians won their lone title in 2001 and will take some stopping in 2015.

ECUADOR

Ecuador felt they had let themselves down after failing to beat the group stage in Brazil last year.  Nevertheless El Tricolor are a good side that with a little luck could go far in Chile.  The Ecuadorians have never won the Copa America and are unlikely to disturb that record in 2015 but they could be the side that surprises one of the big boys in a quarter-final to throw a serious spanner in the works.

Fans of the English Premier League will recognise Enner Valencia up front for Gustavo Quinetros’ men.

JAMAICA

CONMEBOL invites two nations to join the ten South American sides at the Copa and the Reggae Boyz are one of those invitees.  The Jamaicans are unlikely to reach the knockout stages but will not lie down either.  Winfried Schaefer’s lads will be determined to leave Chile with at least one victory and this could seriously alter the course of their group.  Their most high-profile players are arguably defenders Wes Morgan (Leicester City) and Adrian Mariappa (Crystal Palace).  Expect an early flight home.

MEXICO

The other invitee will pack far more of a punch.  In 2011 the Mexicans arrived in Argentina with their Under-23 squad in preparation for the Olympic Games.  Miguel Herrera will take a squad to Chile that is far stronger and fans unfamiliar with Mexican football will recognise the likes of Rafael Marquez, Carlos Salcedo and Raul Jimenez.  El Tri have twice finished second at the Copa America and will see no reason why they cannot go one better in 2015.

PARAGUAY

From the late 1990s until 2011 the Paraguayans were something of a continental powerhouse.  The Paraguayans were regulars at the World Cup, even reaching the quarter-finals in South Africa and lost in the 2011 Copa final to Uruguay.  However retirements and a period of rebuilding saw Los Guaranies fail to reach Brazil 2014 as they finished bottom of the qualifiying table.

It is difficult to gauge how strong Ramon Diaz’s squad will be, particularly with the bulk of the squad based in Latin America.  When European clubs are not interested that is usually a good sign that the quality might not be what it perhaps should.  Nelson Haedo Valdez is likely to be a key player for Paraguay.  A repeat of their victories in 1959 and 1979 or even the silver medal in 2011 is unlikely though.

PERU

More in the Bolivia category, than the Brazil group whenever La Blanquirroja are brought up in conversation.  Peru did reach the 2011 semi-finals and are probably more likely to be the kind of team to derail a big boy than actually go all the way.  The Peruvians did win the Copa back in 1939 and 1975 but are probably a quarter-final side at best this time around.  If they are to achieve this, or indeed go one better, Bayern Munich’s Claudio Pizarro, now 36, and Schalke 04’s Jefferson Farfan as well as Paolo Guerrero will need to fire.

URUGUAY

No other side is as successful as La Celeste in the history of the Copa America.  Uruguay won the title in 2011 but Oscar Tabarez’s side will be hampered by the absence of Luis Suarez this time around.  The Uruguayans have won South America’s crown 15 times as well as two World Cup titles but 2015 is going to be a hard ask.  However Tabarez has demonstrated tactical genius before and only a fool would write Uruguay off.

Captain Diego Godin will be joined by other high-profile stars like Jose Gimenez, Sebastian Coates, Cristian Rodriguez and Edinson Cavani.  The side also has a new Diego – Rolan.  If the Bordeaux striker is anything like the now-retired forward who bears such a similar-sounding name, then the future certainly does bode well.  While I do not see them winning the title, Uruguay are the tournament dark horses for me.

VENEZUELA

The continent’s up-and-comers.  For the best part of football’s history Venezuela were nowhere until a surge in government spending on the sport saw development flourish.  The Venezuelans even reached the semi-finals in 2011 and heavily fancied their chances of qualifying for their first-ever World Cup.  In the end they fell just short of the fifth place in qualifying that Uruguay held.

La Vinotinto will be eyeing continuous progress and players like the impressive Gabriel Cichero at the back, Benfica midfielder Jhon Murillo and Zenit Saint Petersburg hitman Salomon Rondon will form the spine of Noel Sanvicente’s side.  A bit of a dark horse for me but, not quite as dim as Uruguay.  Another final four showing would represent good success for Venezuela.

GROUP A

Host nation Chile finds itself grouped with Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia.  I predict it to finish (in order) as follows: Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia

GROUP B

Here you will find defending champions Uruguay, bitter rivals Argentina, Paraguay and Jamaica.  I fancy the final standings to look like this: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Jamaica.

GROUP C

Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela make up this tough group.  It could go many different ways but I am going to pick the Colombians to take the pool with Brazil, Venezuela and Peru finishing in the respective remaining positions.

QUARTER-FINALS

The complicated format of the Copa America means that group winners and runners-up all progress alongside two of the best third-placed sides, which as you can appreciate could be anybody.  Goal difference and other criteria also separate sides in the rankings of who is the best and second-best third-placed side, so with that in mind my quarter-final line-up could look something like this:

Chile v Paraguay/Venezuela
Mexico v Brazil
Argentina v Ecuador/Venezuela            
Colombia v Uruguay

SEMI-FINALS

I’m terribly torn by the Brazil/Colombia dilemma but I guess I have now stuck my neck out.  Either way they would both win their quarter-finals regardless of who meets Mexico and who faces Uruguay in my book.  So with that in mind my final four would be Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia and they play in this order:

Chile v Brazil
Argentina v Colombia

FINAL

I would like to stop here because I have no idea how these two matches could finish.  Personally I would love to see Chile and Argentina in the final but it could just as easily be Brazil versus Colombia or any other combination.  I think if Chile makes the final they will win.  However they just do not seem capable of beating Brazil do they?  World Cups 1998, 2010 and 2014 all saw wins for the Selecao against La Roja, who did come within a penalty shootout of stopping the Brazilians last year.

If not then surely Argentina’s time has come.  22 years is a long time for a famous footballing nation like the Argentines to go without a trophy.  Whichever way I look at it, all I can say is that Copa America 2015 in Chile is going to be one very exciting tournament.