Copa America gives Messi, Tevez chance to click for Argentina

Santiago (Chile), June 8 (IANS) The Copa America is the world’s oldest continental football competition, its first edition in 1916 predating the European Cup (now the Champions League) by 39 years.

Uruguay, with 16 titles, are the most successful team, having dominated the competition in its early years. Argentina are next with 14 titles followed by Brazil with eight, reports Xinhua.

The 2015 tournament – which begins here on Thursday – includes each of the 10 teams from the South American football confederation (CONMEBOL), plus Mexico and Jamaica. The winner of the competition will qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. Here’s a look at the June 11-July 4 tournament in Chile.

The holders

Uruguay are the reigning Copa America champions, having lifted the trophy after a 3-0 victory over Paraguay in the 2011 final in Buenos Aires. But much has changed since then. Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s leading scorer in that tournament with four goals, will be missing this time round as he continues to serve a nine-match suspension for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during last year’s World Cup.

Also absent will be the team’s most capped player and 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan, who has retired. In their absence, Uruguay’s attack will be carried by Edison Cavani and Diego Rolan. Both were on the scoresheet in Uruguay’s 5-1 victory over Guatemala in a friendly on Saturday.

The Messi-Tevez intrigue

While question marks may hang over Uruguay’s attack, there are no such concerns for Argentina. Lionel Messi, fresh from leading Barcelona to their fourth Champions League victory in the past decade, scored 58 goals in 57 matches last season, despite often being deployed in a deeper-lying playmaker role. In front of him will be Sergio Aguero, the Emglish Premier League’s leading scorer last season with 26 goals from 33 matches, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez.

It is Tevez’s inclusion that has arguably created the most intriguing sub-plot to this year’s tournament. Can Tevez and Messi finally click while playing for Argentina? Evidence from previous major tournaments would suggest a negative answer.

At the 2006 World Cup in Germany and 2007 Copa America in Venezuela, the pair played bit-part roles in teams that also included renowned goal-scorers Hernan Crespo, Diego Milito and Juan Roman Riquelme. Their time to shine was at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and the Copa America the following year.

But they were an abject failure on both occasions. At the World Cup, Tevez scored twice while Messi failed to find the net under coach Diego Maradona’s stewardship. In the Copa America, a year later the pair fared even worse, both ending the tournament without a goal as the hosts were bundled out by Uruguay in the quarter-finals.

Argentina’s current coach Gerardo Martino has given Tevez another chance, recalling him for the first time in three years last October. Tevez has rejuvenated his career at Italian club Juventus, with 50 goals in two seasons.

But doubts linger over his compatibility with Messi. Both players have denied suggestions of a rift between the pair. But they – and Martino – will know that only joint success on the pitch in Chile will silence the doubters.

Players to watch

This is a tournament brimming with world class players at their peak. Apart from Messi and Tevez, other marquee names include Brazil forward Neymar, Chile’s Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, and Colombia’s Real Madrid midfielder James Rodriguez. All are coming off outstanding seasons for their respective clubs in Europe.

The fortunes of Colombian striker Radamel Falcao will also be keenly followed after enduring a horrible season with English club Manchester United.

Mexico’s priorities

While South American teams have made no secret of how seriously they take this competition, the same cannot be said of Mexico. Coach Miguel Herrera’s squad does not include leading players Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, Diego Reyes and brothers Giovani Dos Santos and Jonathan Dos Santos, having rested them for the Gold Cup, to be played from July 7 to 26.

Who will win?

Argentina and Brazil are the perennial favourites for any major international competition and it will be no different here. While Argentina’s attack will evoke anxiety for any opposition defence, Brazil’s new steely resolve under coach Dunga – added to Neymar’s creative spark – makes them equally formidable.

Colombia will look to continue their rapid ascent under coach Jose Pekerman, who steered them to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time last year.

As hosts, Chile cannot be discounted. Jorge Sampaoli’s team were unlucky to be defeated on penalties by Brazil in the World Cup Round of 16 stage. Led by attackers Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, they will fancy their chances of at least going a step or two further here.

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