Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia
On the face of it, Group A is probably the easiest of the three groups to call. Argentina, hosts and tournament favourites have too much quality and cohesiveness about about them to have any major worries in topping the section.
Equally, it seems a no-brainer to call Colombia for the second automatic spot. Sleeping giants, the continents’ greatest underachievers may find goals taxingly hard to come by but they should prove too strong for both Costa Rica’s under-23 selection and Bolivia. Given this apparent gulf, it is difficult to see either of the latter two sneaking through this stage as one of the better third-placed sides.
Key Man: Lionel Messi.
There is nothing we can write about the wizard that hasn’t been written. Perhaps unfairly chided for his World Cup displays where, despite being used in areas of the field that negated his qualities, he still played well and was desperately unlucky not to bag two or three games. Can’t be blamed for tactical and collective failure of their shambolic exit to Germany, and has upped his game having moved to centre stage under Batista’s new system.
One to watch: Ever Banega.
That’s if he starts- which he should do. Has blossomed after a rocky introductions, and his range passing and assurance make him a key asset in this midfield. Has been labelled as Argentina’s Xavi, and this isn’t a great insult to the great man himself. Will need to maintain his form, however, as Javier Pastore will be waiting in the wings to take his place if he performs below standard.
Weakest Link: the whole defence with the exception of Zanetti. Especially Burdisso and goalkeeper Pablo Carrizzo. Their lack of attacking threat from full-back means their Barcelona-inspired model has its limitations, and their overall lack of pace and quality at the back makes them vulnerable to pacey, quick-thinking attackers.
Key Man: Rademal Falcão.
Seven goals in 28 internationals is not the form we associate with the FC Porto forward, but if Colombia are to do anything in this tournament they’ll need to buck that trend.
One to watch: Cristián Zapata. Another young South American doing great things at Udinese. Comfortable in the centre of defence, or at full back, his pace and comfort with the ball are his greatest assets.
Weakest Link: That ever-present lack of a goal threat. Pretty in passing, but slow-paced and indirect, their style might well be suited to Caribbean conditions, but it’s a needless follow in the winter conditions of this Copa. It’s also not going to get the best out of a striker like Falcão who you don’t want to see playing with his back to goal.
Prediction: Quarter Finals
Given that the entire squad has only 90 caps between them (an average of just 4.2), that all but two are home based (the other two are playing Collegiate football in the US and for Cerro Porteño in Paraguay) it’s very hard to assess this Costa Rica squad. 27 year old striker Randall Brenes had a moderately successful four years in Denmark, and has 4 goals in 12 starts for the national team (2 of those came against Cuba in 2005, but he found the net recently against China and at the Gold Cup against El Salvador
Prediction: Third in group
Key Man: Ronald Raldes is a mainstay in defence, and has played at the top divisions in Mexico and Israel. He returned to the Argentine top-flight with Colón last year where he’s nailed down a regular slot at centre-half.
One to watch: Marcelo Moreno has struggled to find game time since moving to Europe with Shakhtar Donetsk three years ago, and failed to make any impact in loan spells at Wigan and Werder Bremen. Having shone briefly in Brazil before making the move, he’s still the go to guy for this side and his goalscoring record in World Cup qualifying was impressive.
Weakest Link: The fact that they won’t get to play in altitude at La Paz.
Prediction: Fourth in group
Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela
Possibly the easiest group of all to call in terms of who tops it; Brazil. Behind them, things get a little more complicated. Venezuela continue to build on their success in 2007 and now look to be a serious team. Ecuador are at an awkward stage in their development, but remain dangerous, especially with the pace of Benitez and Valencia. Paraguay’s fortitude means their a side nobody enjoys facing, and came closer than anyone to dumping Spain out of last year’s World Cup. You would have to fancy them for second, but it’s all up for grabs in Group B.
Key Man: If Lucas Leiva is the water-carrier in this Brazil set-up, than Chelsea’s Ramires is the engine. Versatile, rounded, and energetic, his function in this side is essential and tow fold. In defence he needs to be able to come narrow, and also cover the right-back. Additionally, he is expected to get up the field and link with the forward players. Fortunately, his skill-set and stamina levels means he’s ideally suited to this role.
One to watch: Neymar. Yes. He is that good. With his international team-mate Paulo Henrique Ganso back to pull the strings for the second leg if the Libertadores final against Nacional last week, he ran riot.
Weakest Link: The obvious weakness is that the squad has been altered radically in a relatively short period. Mano Menezes has begun to settle on his preferred XI, but perhaps they’ve not gelled entirely. Hot-headedness has been a mark of some recent friendlies, and could costs them dear as it did against the Dutch in South Africa.
They remain a solid, dogged side and hard to break down. Lucas Barrios adds an extra dimension in an attack that was entirely dependent on Roque Santa Cruz for so long.
Key Man: Paulo Da Silva. He might have been rubbish for Sunderland, but he remains a rock for his national team.
One to watch: Lucas Barrios has been a superb addition to the squad, born and raised in Argentina, he’s had to overcome a degree of prejudice turning out for his parents’ homeland but those doubts seem a long time ago now. Good in the air, impressive technically, and powerful as well as mobile, he’s not shy in front of the sticks either. Just off the back of an impressive campaign at Borussia Dortmund, where he picked up a Bundesliga medal in his first season.
Weakest Link: Lack of dynamism overall in attack and pace on the flanks.
Prediction: Quarter Finals
This is very much a side in transition from their breakthrough 2002 and 2006 World Cup sides. For the most part the squad contains a curious blend of inexperience and a clutch of those the wrong side of 30. Will be looking ahead to the World Cup campaign, one feels this Copa may have come a little bit too soon for them.
Key Man: Antonio Valencia. Bridges the aforementioned age-gap. His drive and power on the wings and leadership mark him out as the main man.
One to watch: Christian Benitez disappointed at Birmingham City, but continues to excel for his national selection. Has had some injury problems since returning to Mexican football, but his goals to game ratio and all round nuisance factor remains a great asset.
Weakest Link: The blend of youth and experience isn’t quite right, and with Venezuela on the up and up they could struggle to come third.
Prediction: Fourth in group
Key Man: Juan Arango. After five productive years in La Liga with Mallorca, he moved to Monchengladbach two summers ago where he continues to impress. By now a veteran, he serves as an inspiration and example to this promising group of Venezuelan footballers.
One to watch: Julio Baptista stole most of the headline, but to those watching closely José Rondón was the standout figure as Málaga beat the drop in La Liga. A 6ft 1, he doesn’t get muscled out of it easily and his goalscoring record in a side which struggled for most of the season was impressive. Could be destined for great things.
Weakest Link: Lack of a track record in this competition off home soil.
Prediction: Quarter Finals
Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico
On paper, this group looks very competitive, but once you scratch below the surface matters become more clear cut. First of all, this is not the same Mexico we saw romp to Gold Cup success; it’s not even the under 23 side with 5 overaged players which the federation intended to bring. Suspensions (both for illegal substances, and fooling with prostitutes) has left their ranks decimated. Consequentially, Chile and Uruguay look a shoe-in for the top two spots, and Mexico should do enough to follow them. Peru are here to make up the numbers; a pretty rubbish side on the best of days, with two of their best players (Jefferson Fárfan and Claudio Pizarro) out through injury, and the other two (Juan Manuel Vargas and Paulo Guerrero) walking wounded, they’ll be on the first flight back to Lima.
Key Man: Diego Forlán. Other may have emerged to shoulder the burden along the one-time Villarreal ace, but Uruguay will need to see him at his best after a wretched season at Atlético Madrid.
One to watch: Edinson Cavani; goals, goals, and… more goals. But it’s not just goals that el matador brings to the table. Formerly played on the wings or behind the striker, his link up play and awareness remain excellent. But when you’re as good in the air as he is, and able to shoot off both feet, goals are bound to follow.
Weakest Link: It’s hard to find a weak area in this squad. All areas are strong and well covered. It might sound trite, but their recent record against opposition for their home continent hasn’t been impressive, and they were very fortunate to make the play-off spot for the World Cup. All things considered though, with the younger quality they’ve brought through in the last 18 months, they are a much improves side since then; and arguably too since the world cup.
Prediction: Semi Finals
Key Man: Alexis Sánchez comes into this tournament off the back of an exceptional season that sees all of Europe’s leading clubs coveting his signature. Would fit right into just about any team; even Barcelona. There’s not many compliments higher than that, and his move from the right to behind the strikers has allowed him to showcase his gifts like never before.
One to watch: Gary Medel often plays in midfield for his club, Sevilla, but is generally favoured in defence for Chile. Tough, aggressive, snappy in the tackle, he also reads the game extremely well for a 23 year old. Chile will need his presence at the back to push on.
Weakest Link: Although Claudio Borghi has moved to tighten things up defensively, you still feel this is Chile’s achilles heel. They love to play the game in the opponent’s half of the field, but are susceptible to quick counter-attacks as shown both in the World Cup and the qualifiers by Brazil.
Prediction: Semi Finals/Potential Finalists
Key Man: Paolo Guerrero and Juan Manuel Vargas. Unfortunately, both are unfit and may have to wait until the second or third game to get on the field.
One to watch: Defender Alberto Junior Rodríguez formerly of SC Braga will follow his former coach Domigos Paciencia to Sporting this summer. An ever-present over two very successful seasons in a team who’s watchword is defence tells you all you need to know. Will struggle to bring the same level of discipline to this ragged outfit, however.
Weakest Link: This a poor team, who finished bottom of World Cup Qualifying. Without their main men, the entire starting bar Rodríguez XI is a weak link. Injuries to their four key stars, and the dearth of up-and-coming young talent leaves little to watch out for, unfortunately.
Prediction: Fourth in group
Key Man: Giovani dos Santos remains the man. Has struggled at several clubs since leaving Barcelona, but found form in the second half of last season whilst on loan at Racing Santander in La Liga. Was in sparkling form during the Gold Cup, capping it off with two assists and an absolute screamer as Mexico came form 2-0 down to beat the United States in the final in Pasadena.
One to watch: With the ruptures in the the squad wrought by suspensions, we’re left with a squad holding a total of 98 caps; of those Giovani dos Santos holds 45. Please forgive me, but I think I’ll pass on this one!
Weakest Link: Mexico have enjoyed great success at underage level in recent times, and this forms the basis of the current senior squad which claimed the Gold Cup last week. Sending such a young squad, and with all those suspensions, makes them an unknown quantity here. But with the quality of younger footballers coming through the ranks, they should still prove competitive.