Brazil and Uruguay Have Fallen Away: Now Copa America Is Argentina's to Lose

Daniel Edwards@@DanEdwardsGoalFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2016

Argentina's Victor Cuesta, center, is congratulated by Ezequiel Lavezzi, front, and Ramiro Funes Mori after scoring his side's third goal against Bolivia during a Copa America Centenario Group D soccer match, Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Even in their wildest dreams, Argentina could not have imagined their path to the Copa America would be cleared so obligingly by their rivals. Three of the South American continent's top outfits have fallen by the wayside after the first round, and anything but victory in 2016 would be a massive underachievement. 

It began with Uruguay. The 2011 winners were tipped to turn a few heads in the United States, and it was not hard to see why. The nucleus of the team that had led the Celeste to great success in recent years was still there, as was veteran tactician Oscar Tabarez. 

However, their lack of strength in depth betrayed them. The absence of Luis Suarez was an insurmountable obstacle, and Uruguay bombed out of the Copa with two defeats and just one solitary goal—from defender Diego Godin, moreover—before even taking the field for their final game. They would soon be joined by neighbours Paraguay. 

Ramon Diaz's charges were another side that on paper at least looked set to push all the way. But the Argentinian coach was never able to marry the creative young talents of Oscar Romero, Miguel Almiron and Derlis Gonzalez (to name just three) with the more rustic performers Paraguay were forced to field further down the pitch. 

The team did not work as a unit, and just one point from an admittedly tough group containing Colombia, Ecuador and the hosts United States was a similarly poor showing. Diaz resigned immediately after elimination, leaving the Guarani in a quandary ahead of the resumption of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers later this year. 

However, no quarter-final absence will please Argentina more than Brazil's. The Selecao of 2016 is barely a team to set hearts pulsing and opponents fleeing in fear, even if captain Neymar had been present on the pitch rather than a privileged spectator. But the sides that Dunga put out in 2004 and 2007 were similarly underwhelming, and that proved no impediment to victory. 

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

In those two editions, a highly rated Argentina dazzled on the way to the final only to have their hearts broken by Dunga's pitiless warriors. But the Albiceleste's tormentor-in-chief is gone, sacked after a miserable Copa, and Brazil's early exit is a massive boost for a team desperate to win for the first time since 1993. 

Little-fancied Venezuela now lie in wait in Saturday's last-eight clash, instead of a nervous clash with Uruguay or Mexico the formbook would have suggested pre-tournament. In the semis, meanwhile, the improving hosts United States will be the next side to face the Argentinian juggernaut.

Only in a prospective final could the Albiceleste clash with one of the remaining heavyweights: resurgent Colombia, champions Chile and a vibrant Mexico side playing an essentially home tournament thanks to the impressive Latino support across the United States. The cards have all come out in the Albiceleste's favour in 2016, although nobody in the side will be taking victory for granted. 

"We have been a solid team. We had a good first half, where we made the difference... The team felt good and finished off a great first round, but it means nothing if we do not follow up in the coming match," coach Gerardo Martino told reporters on Tuesday following the 3-0 win over Bolivia. 

The trainer added that Lionel Messi, restricted as of yet to two appearances off the bench, would almost certainly start against Venezuela. Even without their captain and star, the Albiceleste took a perfect nine points out of nine in the group stage—and adding La Pulga to that potent mix make the team a fearsome prospect. 

Nothing is guaranteed in football. Argentina will still need to win their last three games to take the title, and there are still issues to be ironed out within the squad. 

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Messi's fitness has held up well so far in the minutes he has played, but he will have to be watched carefully to make it through the knockout stages as his time on the field is gradually increased. Angel Di Maria is also likely to miss the clash against Venezuela, and having impressed so much in the second half of the Copa opener, his presence would give the nation a big boost. 

Neither Sergio Aguero nor Gonzalo Higuain, moreover, has given the type of performance that would solve Martino's doubts over the centre-forward position. These questions, and others, will still need to be answered if Argentina hope to find their best form before the end of the tournament. 

But the team's cautious optimism is warranted. The exit of three big rivals leaves the path open to break the 23-year title drought at senior level, and nothing other than victory will be expected from this point onwards. The Copa America Centenario is Argentina's to lose—but now the hard work begins for the hot favourites.