The first round of matches at the 43rd Copa America has followed a similar pattern to the primary offerings at last year’s World Cup in South Africa. The tales of caution, upsets and the depth in South American football from a year ago have been replicated in Argentina as the lesser lights have kept the traditional powerhouses of the continent at bay.
Indeed with the opening fixtures containing more deadlocks than a bad series of X-Factor, not one of the 10 South American participants have been defeated – that particular pain has only been inflicted upon the two understrength invited nations from the CONCACAF region, Mexico and Costa Rica.
The pattern was set on opening night as an expectant home crowd saw a Leo Messi led Argentina begin their quest for a first title in 18 years against Bolivia. La Verde are often thrown to the hosts as sacrificial lambs for the curtain raiser. But it was the Bolivians themselves who inflicted more embarrassment upon their hosts (their last meeting in the altitude of La Paz had ended 6-1 to Bolivia) with a stubborn performance in a 1-1 draw.
The problems encountered by La Albiceleste were familiar ones. Coach Sergio Batista has continually stressed his intention to play a Barcelona style 4-3-3 with the obvious intention of providing the best platform for Messi to succeed on the international stage. The difficulty in providing that platform is trying to balance a side that is the most top-heavy talent to come out of South America since Larissa Riquelme’s animated support of her beloved Paraguay went viral.
With Messi in the false nine position, the onus is on the two wide-forwards to maintain their width to stretch the defence and create space for the Barcelona man between the lines, whilst also recognising when to make the diagonal run across the full-back in behind the defence to meet the deadly Messi through-ball.
However, for all their attacking talent Argentina don’t have those options to play the Pedro and Villa roles that allow Messi to be so effective.
Sergio Aguero – who equalised with a wonderful volleyed finish on Friday – and Carlos Tevez prefer to play in similar areas to Messi as a second striker. Gonzalo Higuain is more effective leading the line and Angel Di Maria provides excellent width but prefers to stay on the left-flank than drifting inside.
Batista bowed to local pressure to start Tevez alongside Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi and Messi in the front three. However both Tevez and Lavezzi failed to impress and the latter was eventually replaced by Aguero.
Batista, somewhat surprisingly, looks set to stick with the same front three that started against Bolivia in Argentina’s next fixture against an improving Colombia side on Wednesday. However, trying to copy the Barcelona model creates another, arguably greater problem for Batista, how do you replicate the creativity of Xavi and Iniesta?
In an attempt to eradicate the tactical malfunction suffered by Diego Maradona in the 4-0 defeat to Germany last summer, when Javier Mascherano was used as a lone holding midfielder and was swamped by the German counter-attack, Batista has filled the midfield with a triple-cinco, three central midfield players with more emphasis on destroying than creating. Mascherano has been joined by Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega, but, as evidenced on Friday, this triumvirate can be as equally stale as Maradona’s line-up was cavalier. When Cambiasso was replaced by Di Maria at half-time the hosts were much more fluid in a 4-2-1-3 system.
It wasn’t just Argentina who failed to break the resistance of well-organised opponents on opening day. The unfancied Venezuela and Peru also held the other seeded sides, Brazil and Uruguay, to 0-0 and 1-1 draws respectively.
Brazil were the biggest disappointment of the competition so far. With the focus very much on building towards the 2014 World Cup in home soil, coach Mano Menezes went with a very youthful side in his first competitive outing.
Ganso started only his second game for the senior side in the number 10 role behind a front three of Neymar, Robinho and Alexandre Pato. The Premier League duo of Lucas Leiva and Ramires held in midfield, whilst Thiago Silva partnered Lucio in defence.
Pato was the standout performer and was unlucky to see his fierce drive rattle the bar with the best effort of the match. Neymar only showed flashes of his undoubted ability whilst Robinho disappointed and Ganso failed to make any impact on the game at all.
The most disappointing aspect of the Seleção’s performance however was how it fizzled out so lamely in the second period. Venezuela’s backline, expertly protected by Tomas Rincon, was rarely troubled after a bright start from the Brazilians. The task now for the improving Venezuelans is to be able to take the game to their opponents in the remainder of the competition and the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Perhaps the knives shouldn’t be out for Menezes and his young charges just yet. With 2014 in mind this side does lack experience and is just beginning to learn how to play together. The spine of the side that started on Sunday evening should be there in three years time, by which point the likes of Thiago Silva, Ganso, Neymar and Pato should be among the world’s elite.
However, that promise is unlikely to quell the expectations of a famously demanding Brazilian press and public. With Group B set to be the tightest of all three groups (with no understrength North Americans to prey upon) the pressure will be on for a greatly improved performance against World Cup quarter-finalists Paraguay on Saturday.
Uruguay will be slightly more satisfied with their performance in the 1-1 draw against Peru. The much hyped front three of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani functioned well in spells and Nicolas Lodeiro impressed in the playmaking role, including a nice through-ball to Suarez for the equaliser. Forlan should have given them all three points in the second-half but uncharacteristically blazed over when clean through.
Peru also more than played their part in one of the more entertaining games of the first round and showed more attacking potential than either Venezuela or Bolivia. Paolo Guerrero’s finish for the opener was composed, although the defending more than a bit shambolic, and if Juan Vargas is fit enough to play 90 minutes he has the guile to create opportunities that some other sides in the competition lack.
Overall, the overwhelming trends from the first round symbolised in these three draws provide a mixture of positive and negative points.
On the bright side there is no doubt regarding the strength in-depth of South American football. The clearest example of this was provided by Uruguay last summer who finished fifth in South American World Cup qualifying and fourth in the competition itself. Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador (four of the sides that did not qualify for South Africa) showed they are more than a match for the sides who did make it through the qualification stage last time round and gives an insight into how competitive the forthcoming qualifiers for 2014 will be, especially given there is an extra place for South American nations due to Brazil’s position as hosts.
Unfortunately, the other trend followed from the 2010 World Cup is how cagey the opening round of games has become in major competitions. An average of only 1.33 goals a game is even lower than the dire 1.56 offered by the 16 first round games last summer. It appears that the fear of losing the opening game has now engulfed the potential reward of a flying start.
Written by Kieran Canning