The 2021 Copa America officially begins on Sunday as host Brazil takes on Venezuela in the opener, while Colombia also face Ecuador as part of Group A play. The competition runs through July 10 with the big finale as Brazil aim to repeat as champions. A new format is likely to change the approach to the competition for all of the teams involved as some of the world’s most talented national teams battle for continental supremacy.
Ahead of the action., here are five storylines to watch:
1. Can Brazil repeat while dealing with the outside noise?
Well, it looks like they are playing after all. After flirting with boycotting the competition after it was moved to Brazil, speaking out against CONMEBOL and the process of moving the cup to their country, they appear locked in if recent form is any sign. Brazil just beat Ecuador and Paraguay in World Cup qualifying and enter as the clear-cut favorites. But, will there be any distractions? Opposing confederation president Rogerio Caboclo, with president Jair Bolsonaro getting involved as well, could we see some type of action from the players that could impact their focus on the matches?
Even if so, Brazil are a lock to make the knockout stage of the competition and should be well on their way to winning another Copa America.
2. Argentina hope to put it together with fresh, new faces
The national team of Argentina has moved away from the aging stars, but change doesn’t always do you good. The team still rarely puts together inspiring performances, evident by the draws against Chile and Colombia over the last week, blowing leads in both. While the change in players is refreshing, the lack of cohesion continues to be the side’s downfall. The biggest concern this team has is in defense, where Cristian Romero is a rising superstar, but next to him there is very little. After Romero picked up an injury against Colombia, the defense could be in shambles for Matchday 1.
Nicolas Otamendi continues to get minutes despite being well past his prime, and time is running out for Lionel Scaloni to figure out just how to plan his team.
Lionel Messi can’t do it all, but if they can fix the defense in time, they’ll have a chance.
3. Will new format water things down?
Gone is the three-team format as only 10 teams are involved this time around with no guest national teams. That means we now have two groups of five, where four out of the five of each group advance to the knockout stage. That means teams will likely lose multiple group stage games yet advance to the next round, which I think will water down first phase quite a bit. Each team will play four matches, one more than usual, which will also test the depth of each squad.
Because 80 percent of the teams advance, don’t be shocked if some of the late group stage games feature a lot of backups and very little on the line.
4. Uruguay’s aging squad becoming a concern
COVID has hit Uruguay big time, making the attack stumble entering the contest. With strikers Darwin Nunez and Maxi Gomez both impacted by the virus, along with Edinson Cavani joining the national team late, all eyes will be on Luis Suarez to replicate his form with Atletico Madrid after winning La Liga with Los Colchoneros.
The big question here is, will the experienced national team run into issues due to its aging stars?
35-year-old Diego Godin is still the captain and starting defender, despite being well past his prime. 34-year-old defender Martin Caceres still has an important role, and there is some fresh blood in the side that really has a chance to make a mark.
It certainly feels like some of the young guns are going to have to step outside of the likes of Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur. One guy to keep an eye on is Barca defender Ronaldo Araujo. If Godin struggles early, he is more than capable of stepping in and helping this team make a run. He’s strong in the air, has fine speed and plays physical, looking like the next great Uruguayan defender.
5. Team with a chance at a Cinderella run is …
Ecuador. Despite recent losses to Brazil and Peru, Gustavo Alfaro’s team had been in fantastic form in qualifying and currently sit in third place in the table. While the job is far from over, they are sitting in a great spot when it comes to pulling off the surprise and qualifying for next year’s World Cup.
The team has a ton of pace, play physical and have an attacking style of going on the counter that can cause real damage. A lot of it will depend on the draw that they get, but they should have more than enough to make it to the knockout stage. If they can excel in the group stage and earn a draw against somebody like Chile, Paraguay or Bolivia, a run to the semifinals is not out of the question.