SOUTH AMERICAN football fanatic Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the four challengers in Group C at this summer's Copa America, highlighting his best bets.
Having waited a lifetime for senior success, Chile captured successive Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016 to mark the country’s most successful-ever spell. But, barring a major surprise, La Roja will be handing over their crown this summer with their golden generation in desperate need of regeneration ahead of the start of 2022 World Cup qualification.
Chile’s decline has been steep and sad as the side ran out of steam in their failed bid to reach Russia. The bulk of their squad came through the ranks together at the U20 World Cup in 2007 but the ageing process hasn’t been kind as La Roja’s players have been overplayed and overworked with four summer tournaments in the past five summers alone.
Juan Antonio Pizzi was replaced as head coach by Reinaldo Rueda in January 2018. The Colombian was a logical choice with considerable World Cup experience with both Honduras and Ecuador, as well as being a Copa Libertadores champion. Making his name as a youth development specialist, he ticked all the boxes, but transition hasn’t been easy.
The lack of available and capable younger talent to replace the old-timers is almost non-existent and the process of renewal has been made much harder by the lack of patience from the local press and public. Media hysteria surrounding the plight of Chile has projected a very negative light over La Roja making the reinvigorating process incredibly difficult.
Rueda has won just five of his 12 matches in charge and hasn’t been helped by the alarming drop-off in form of Alexis Sanchez. Arturo Vidal is now the key component in a squad that features six players with more than 100 caps and nine players the wrong side of 30. The average age is almost 29 and the youngest outfielder is just 24, evidencing their age issue.
As well as Vidal, hopes rest on his midfield partner Charles Aranguiz in a 4-2-3-1. The focus remains on building something worthwhile for the World Cup qualifiers but in newcomer Guillermo Maripan the defence has added height, whilst Arturo Sagal is an interesting wide forward and Erick Pulgar impressed for Bologna this term to at least add a degree of freshness.
Ecuador haven’t reached the semi-finals of the Copa America since hosting the competition back in 1993 and having failed to win a competitive match outside of their homeland since November 2015, aren’t expected to pull up any trees this summer. And such an impression has only been hammered home by their own head coach Hernan Dario Gomez…
Gomez – the only manager to qualify three separate nations to the World Cup – took La Tricolor to their maiden World Cup in 2002 but his return to the hot-seat was greeted by dissenting voices. The Ecuadorian public wanted a more illustrious name and rejected the Colombian disciplinarian as old news.
The straight-talking boss only added fuel to the fire by dismissing the Copa America as an inconvenience. Gomez has a history of treating the competition with disdain and has made it clear he doesn’t expect to have a consolidated team together until next year. His priority is fostering a competitive squad for 2022 and he’s also managed to bemoan the lack of unity surrounding the senior side despite the U20 roster claiming continental glory recently.
Ecuador have only escaped from the group stages of the Copa America twice since 1993 and Los Amarillos have never claimed outright glory in this competition, let alone reached the showpiece final. There’s a very pessimistic vibe around the national team and the strength of the squad available to Gomez is also questionable compared to previous campaigns.
Millar Bolanos and Jefferson Montero have both been excluded, whilst Enner and Luis Antonio Valencia headline the 23-man group. The Valencia pair have collectively scored 39 goals for Ecuador, while the rest of the squad have 11 combined. Elsewhere, Robert Arboleda and Gabriel Achilier have garnered interest for their displays at centre-back.
Expect Ecuador to set-up in a 4-4-2 with an organised XI that’s built to protect the defence with a preference for direct football. Gomez often favours a simplified game and selects his side based upon their role within his framework, which can see bigger name players miss out. Carlos Garces will lead the line and with Enner Valencia operating off the central striker.
Japan return to the Copa America for the second time, 20 years since their last appearance. The Samurai Blue upset the odds at the 2018 World Cup, progressing to the Last 16 before almost delivering one of the tournament’s major shocks against Belgium, and were involved in competitive action again earlier this year when finishing runners-up in the Asian Cup.
After the World Cup, assistant boss Hajime Moriyasu took charge of the senior side and since the Asian Cup, Japan’s full focus has been on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. With that in mind, Samurai Blue have elected to send a youth squad to Brazil with 18 players who are aged 24 years or younger and 16 players who are yet to be capped by the senior side.
Experience comes in the form of goalkeeper Eija Kawashima and striker Shinji Okazaki, although the former may be left in reserve as Moriyasu analyses his options. Winger Shoya Nakajima will be pivotal to Japan’s offensive output, defender Takehiro Tomiyasu has impressed in Belgium whilst huge interest is expected in 18-year-old Tatsuya Ito, nicknamed the ‘Japanese Messi’.
Japan do boast a good recent record against South American sides; since the start of 2018, they have beaten Paraguay, Colombia, Uruguay and Bolivia. But none of those matches were held in South America and all were contested with largely full-strength sides.
Moriyasu is expected to select a midfield-heavy side in a 4-2-3-1 system, although supporters and neutrals will be hoping for an improvement in performance after Japan reached the Asian Cup final without playing their traditionally slick, passing football they’ve become associated for this century.
Uruguay went into the 2018 World Cup with many keen admirers suggesting La Celeste could be interesting dark horses. Oscar Tabarez’s team had few obvious weaknesses but flattered to deceive in Russia, scoring just five goals in a group lacking standout quality, before exiting the competition at the quarter-final stage against eventual winners France.
Tabarez was widely expected to step down from his role thereafter – the veteran boss is battling the rare and serious Guillain–Barre syndrome, a debilitating illness that requires the use of crutches. But the 72-year-old penned a new contract in September, eager to extend his 13-year stint with another exciting batch of youngsters being introduced to the squad.
Under Tabarez’s watch, Uruguay have finished as the best continental side at the World Cup in 2010 and 2018, as well as clinching 2011 Copa America glory. His presence offers almost a guarantee of competitiveness, with an age-old combination of gritty defence and deadly forwards proving fruitful, even if his standout stars are starting to wane in in age.
Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are the wrong side of 30 but they are still scoring freely and the defence – anchored by Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez – will be difficult to breach. Elsewhere, the promotion of U20 graduates has refreshed the midfield with Rodrigo Bentancur, Lucas Torreira and Matias Vecino providing bite and poise.
La Celeste have consistently performed well in the Copa, reaching at least the semi-finals in five of the last nine editions, and certainly possess the right ingredients to again go deep in the competition this summer. Tabarez has attempted to replace their reliance on counter-attacking football with a more elaborate, possession-based approach but few could argue the tinkering will make Uruguay vulnerable with such a wily old figure in the dugout.
Group C Verdict
Group C at the Copa America is arguably the most balanced. As the betting suggests, Uruguay are clear and obvious favourites and at even-money (Bet365) I’m happy to support La Celeste in their quest to finish top of the pile.
Chile’s battered old squad is struggling for new blood and wilting under the pressure from the media, whilst Ecuador boss Hernan Dario Gomez has expressed his desire to use the competition for experimental purposes. And it’s impossible to throw our weight behind a Japan side that’s fielded a largely underage squad in preparation for the Olympics.
Copa America – Uruguay to win Group C (1/1 Bet365)