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Copa America Preview: Must-Win for Argentina, Messi.

The 2010 World Cup was a breakout tournament for South American soccer, at least in terms of depth. All five representatives qualified for the knockout stage, four reached the quarterfinals (Brazil and Chile played each other).Uruguay reached the semifinals before losing to the Dutch. They, as well as Chile and Paraguay, will be looking to maintain their form heading into Copa America. Brazil and Argentina will be looking to improve on disappointing campaigns. Here is a preview.

Format: Essentially, it is the same deal as the Gold Cup. Three groups of four get narrowed down to eight teams for a knockout tournament. The ten South American teams invite two outside teams to participate. One is Mexico. The other is Costa Rica, since Japan had to drop out after the earthquake. I would drop the Gold Cup, expand the Copa America to 16 teams and bring in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, the Caribbean champion (Jamaica) and the two top Central American teams (Honduras and Costa Rica) to seriously challenge the Euros, but that’s just me.

Argentina: The Argentines are the hosts and overwhelming favorites (44.5 percent). They are also under overwhelming pressure. They haven’t won a senior competition in 18 years, despite talented squads. The soccer culture is reeling after River Plate’s relegation and the subsequent riots. Blame for the team’s failure at home would be vicious and rest with one man, Leo Messi.

This team is built in Messi’s image, as the 2010 team should have been. Messi will lead a 4-3-3. Lavezzi and Tevez or Angel Di Maria should join him as auxiliary forwards. Argentina is ridiculously loaded. Tevez, Higuain, Aguero, Milito and Javier Pastore could all start on the bench. Absolutely ridiculous. The midfield trio is solid. Ever Banega is in a creative role, flanked by Cambiasso and Mascherano. The back four is not so solid, and could be a liability against opponents with speed.

Brazil: Brazil are second favorites (28.6 percent). New head coach Mano Manezes has license to bring sexy back, after Dunga’s pragmatic team of 11 Dungas failed in South Africa. They will use the same stable base as those teams: Julio Caesar in goal, Lucio anchoring a similar back four, and Lucas and Ramires in central midfield. The change will come up front. Manezes will turn over the team to talented youngsters, such as Neymar (19), Ganso (21), Pato (21), Lucas Moura (18). They should be loaded for 2014. Whether those players can coalesce into a coherent attack will determine how potent they are in 2011.

Uruguay and Chile: Argentina should win Group. Brazil should win Group B. The only group that will intrigue at the top is Group C, with Uruguay and Chile having about equal odds of winning. Both had successful runs in South Africa. Both will be aiming to prove those runs were not twists of fate.

Uruguay bring back almost the same team. Oscar Tabarez is still in charge. The defense remains strong and well organized. They have the three-headed monster of Forlan, Suarez and Cavani up front. La Roja still have Alexis Sanchez, but will be missing tactical mastermind Marco Bielsa, who resigned in February.

Mexico: The Mexicans went all in for the Gold Cup and are sending an under-22 team to Copa America. Unfortunately, that team will be shorthanded after a scandal as well. No tainted meat this time, though the players involved might want to be tested for that. Eight players received six-month suspensions and fined $4,200 each for violating team rules in their Ecuador hotel. Players reported thefts of computers, iPads and cellphones. Security footage revealed that hired prostitutes had likely given the thieves access. Unlike the Gold Cup, however, Mexico can replace the players.

Prediction: Really going to go off the treaded path here. Argentina over Brazil in the final.

 

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