SOUTH AMERICAN football fanatic Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the four challengers in Group B at this summer's Copa America, highlighting his best bets.
Losing finalists in four of the last five Copa Americas, Argentina arrive as second favourites to succeed this summer. Quite frankly, the prospect of La Albiceleste landing outright glory appears fanciful at this stage with the famous footballing nation still searching for their first senior title since 1993 with an ageing golden generation that’s been forever unfulfilled.
Exiting the World Cup at the Last 16 stage saw Jorge Sampaoli dismissed despite his expensive long-term contract and with financial difficulties hitting the federation, the powerbrokers were forced to find a cheaper option to head up the rebuilding job. Step forward former West Ham right-back Lionel Scaloni, Sampaoli’s previous assistant manager.
Scaloni has no prior experience as a number one and is essentially a caretaker coach until the competition conclude; such a move has only increased the anxiety and nervousness around the national team. However, like many regional rivals, La Albiceleste’s main aim is finding a formula ahead of World Cup qualification and selection has reflected that.
Only nine of the 23-man squad were in Russia 12 months ago and only Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Japan’s squads contain fewer overall caps. In fact, in Scaloni’s first eight games in charge he handed 24 players their Argentine debut and used seven goalkeepers; so La Albiceleste arrive without a clear identity, system or playing personnel for the Copa.
Long-term concerns continue to cause strife too. Argentina lack a top-class goalkeeper, have issues fielding a cohesive defensive side and despite their plethora of outstanding attacking options, they struggle for invention and creativity outside the mercurial Lionel Messi. In fact, Messi’s presence has often led to the side playing for him, rather than with him.
An experiment with a back three proved disastrous against Venezuela in March and so Scaloni is expected to field a 4-2-3-1 formation, or something closer to a 4-3-3 system. However, getting the best out of Messi has to be the priority if Argentina have realistic claims to justify their stupidly short pre-tournament prices this summer.
After six years under the stewardship of Jose Pekerman, Colombia commence competitive life under new boss Carlos Queiroz at the Copa America. The former Real Madrid and Portugal head coach has no previous South American experience and was a surprise appointment in February on a three-year deal having spent eight years with Iran.
Queiroz’s first three friendlies have brought mixed results and it’s not at all clear how Colombia’s more explosive talents will be accommodated in his characteristic patient passing style. But it’s clear the underachieving nation possess the ability in both boxes to make a splash in Brazil this summer despite a slightly disappointing World Cup showing.
Los Cafeteros have reached the knockout rounds of the past two World Cups but registered only three semi-final appearances in this competition since 1995, claiming a sole Copa America success when hosting in 2001. Such results don’t do South America’s second most populous country justice and Queiroz has spoken about his desire to make a major mark.
There’s enthusiasm around a squad that blends youth and experience, characterised by the continuity at centre-half with Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina, playmaker James Rodriguez and strikers Radamel Falcao and Duvan Zapata. With Wilmar Barrios, Mateus Uribe and Jefferson Lerma balancing the midfield, there’s pragmatism to support attacking exuberance.
Colombia are weakest on their left-side with no standout left-back and the potential for James to be handed a role from the left in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 system. Meanwhile, Queiroz must decide whether to give Zapata a starting berth after an outstanding campaign in Serie A this season, especially with Falco often suffering as a lone striker for the national team.
Pekerman was often accused of being too conservative in key contests, and whilst Queiroz is more adaptable, Colombia’s inferior complex could prove their undoing when being tested against the continental powerhouses. Nevertheless, Los Cafeteros have suffered a solitary loss in 16 – when going down to 10 men early against Japan – and have the ability to mix it.
Two-time Copa America champions Paraguay come into the competition in a state of flux. La Albirroja missed out on World Cup qualification on the final game – losing 1-0 at home to basement boys Venezuela – and reacted by changing tact and appointing Juan Carlos Osorio last September with a remit to install a more progressive approach to the senior side.
However, Osorio left by mutual consent in February and was replaced by Eduardo Berizzo, who enjoyed great success as Marcelo Bielsa’s assistant with Chile. Like many countries at the Copa, Paraguay will therefore be undercooked, underprepared and searching for vital stability with a stab at qualifying for the 2022 World Cup clearly the priority.
Berizzo has talked about his desire to play a 4-3-3 system with plenty of interchanging and a confidence on the ball across the side, built from the back. His preference is to press high, dominate possession and pin sides back, although such trademarks go against the traditional strengths of Paraguayan football. Early signs from friendlies are concerning.
Paraguay used 21 players across their defeats to Mexico and Peru in March and Berizzo’s boys have since been held by Honduras and overcome Guatemala in Copa America warm-ups. It means La Albirroja have tabled just eight triumphs in 33 since reaching the semi-finals in 2015 and returned only W5-D1-L9 in competitive contests since May 2016.
Los Guaranies do boast a relatively impressive recent record in this competition. Paraguay reached the quarter-finals in six of seven editions between 1993 and 2007, while they were runners-up in 2011 and semi-finalists in 2015, though the talent has dried up and they finished rock-bottom in a group containing USA, Colombia and Costa Rica in 2016 with a single point and a solitary goal.
Paraguay relish their role as Copa underdog, although their shifting styles could prove their undoing. The side are underpinned by strong centre-halves Gustavo Gomez, Fabian Balbuena and Bruno Valdez but the system has still resulted in numerous concerning defensive displays. Elsewhere, Miguel Almiron, Derlis Gonzalez and Federico Santander carry the offensive threats.
Qatar make their Copa America debut this summer and arrive in South America having been crowned Asian Cup champions as recently as February. It was Al-Annabi’s first major senior title and was a decade in the making with the tiny nation building a team worthy of competing on the highest stage via their celebrated Aspire Academy.
Moving away from naturalised foreign mercenaries, top-class coaching at the Academy has produced an impressive generation of youngsters that have now enjoyed success at youth level, including winning the U19 Asian Championship, before coming of age and winning the Asian Cup this year, beating the likes of South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Head coach Felix Sanchez arrived at the Academy back in 2006 earning great success with the underage groups before eventually being promoted to the top job in July 2017. He has arguably the tournament’s most settled squad with his entire 23-man roster playing for domestic clubs, with 15 of them at Al-Sadd or Al-Duhail. It’s a young but experienced group.
Spanish boss Sanchez has imprinted a counter-attacking strategy with Qatar that features a fluid frontline and a largely solid foundation in defence. Ali Almoez, a Sudanese-born striker, headlined at the Asian Cup and is supported by Akram Afif, who has bundles of pace and trickery from the left-hand side. Both are capable of unsettling ponderous defences.
Elsewhere, left-back Abdelkarim Hassan won AFC Asian Player of the Year in 2018, whilst Bassam Al Rawi is earning rave reviews for his set-piece ability and confidence on the ball. Meanwhile, Assim Madibo has been compared to N’Golo Kante for his all-action displays in central midfield and his pace, agility and exuberance is characterised throughout the team.
If there’s one obvious area where Qatar could be exposed it is in their size. Al-Annabi are noticeably smaller in stature than their South American rivals; the squad lacks height and physicality which is concerning flaw against nations such as Paraguay and Colombia who relish mixing it. It’s also worth noting that Sanchez’s side overperformed at the Asian Cup.
Few could argue that Qatar impressed in UAE in the early weeks of the year. However, Expected Goals (xG) and performance data from that tournament showed that Al-Annabi weren’t anywhere near as domain as their overall record suggested, whilst first-choice goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb has suffered a noticeable dip in form since the competition.
Group B Verdict
At the time of writing, neither Betfair nor Matchbook are offering Group Winner markets. That’s a shame as the current price on Argentina taking top honours could be one of the best lays in tournament football. The biggest high-street price of 10/13 (10BET) on La Albiceleste suggest they hold a 57% chance of winning the pool, which is laughable.
It’s too easy to pick holes in this Argentina outfit. The overreliance on Lionel Messi and a system that’s yet to find the best out of he, or his team-mates, is obvious although his match-winning ability shouldn’t be completely dismissed. Meanwhile, playing Qatar in the final group game could also be seen as a minor positive for Lionel Scaloni’s side.
So Colombia (15/8 SkyBet) are almost the standout selection by default. Los Cafeteros are still in the early stages of life after Jose Pekerman but their appears more order under Carlos Quiroz compared to the situation at continental foes Argentina or Paraguay, whilst a stable Qatar side might lack the physicality to make a major mark in the pool.
Copa America – Colombia to win Group B (15/8 SkyBet)