Messi vs Ronaldo - This time they will be wearing their national colors instead!
In less than four months, the Copa América will kick off in Argentina. Sergio Batista's Argentina are in a tough situation where they need to win a trophy, hence the use of an experienced team. Mano Menezes' Brazil will continue to test many new faces as they prepare for the 2014 World Cup. Last, we have Hernán Darío Gómez's Colombia, who have struggled with mediocrity for the last 10 years.
This upcoming round of friendly matches will help the South American national teams prepare for the Copa América, while the Europeans gear up for another round of qualifiers for the Euro 2012. Argentina faces Portugal in Switzerland, while Colombia goes to Madrid to challenge Spain and Brazil squares off against France in Saint-Denis.
Argentina vs. Portugal
Messi vs. Ronaldo is probably the best way to sum up this matchup. The two best players in the world at the club level collide once again, but this time they surprisingly have supporting casts that do not click as well as Barcelona and Real Madrid. This time around, Batista calls up some fresh faces, but the core of the team remains. The nucleus of Romero, Zanetti, Mascherano, Cambiasso, Banega, Pastore and Messi will feature again in this crucial test for Batista.
In what is a step in the right direction, Martín Demichelis and Gabriel Heinze have been left off the squad, which should give players like Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Pareja and Gabriel Milito more minutes in the back line. Often criticized for their pace and marking ability at this stage of their careers, the back line will finally have a fresh look. While Demichelis and Heinze will probably be in the Copa, this will be a good test for defenders who have not had as much playing time in recent memory.
In the midfield, Batista will hopefully try again the combination of Banega, Mascherano and Pastore. This threesome combines a strong mix of ball-winning and playmaking ability. In a surprise move, Fernando Gago gets a place on the team despite his inability to play regularly with Real Madrid.
Despite the absence of strikers Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez, Batista still has strikers/forwards such as Ezequiel Lavezzi, Ángel Di María and Diego Milito at his disposal—not a bad group of forwards to use. Lavezzi and Di María will be excellent wingers to use on the flanks while Messi can still do what he does best.
In recent matches, Messi has been able to find the back of the net with more consistency. If this can continue against Portugal, who is known for fielding a strong defensive side, Messi will be another step closer to total domination, similar to what we see him do at Barcelona every week.
Portugal will have a full-strength squad with players like Nani, Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma on the flanks. Danny, João Moutinho and Raul Meireles will pull the strings in the midfield. Defensively, Fábio Coentrão will push forward from the left while the middle will be anchored by Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho. José Bosingwa will defend from the right, but will have his hands full with Lavezzi or Di María hoping to wreak havoc on the left wing. Portugal's weakest position is their striker as neither Hugo Almeida nor Hélder Postiga pose as much of a threat as someone like Carlos Tevez would.
Moutinho has revived his form and taken things more seriously since being omitted from the World Cup and leading FC Porto's midfield to new heights this season. Another player making a return after a long absence is Quaresma. His career has been quite the roller coaster, to say the least. Now that he is out of the spotlight and playing for Beşiktaş, hopefully he can be a regular squad member and provide additional depth on the wing.
Colombia vs. Spain
Colombia faces their toughest test under Gómez against Spain on Wednesday. In recent friendlies, Spain was defeated by Argentina and Portugal, so look for Spain to try to get on the scoreboard quickly.
Colombia's defense, led by Mario Yepes and David Ospina, will have quite a busy night. Luis Perea, from Atlético Madrid, would probably be the best player to pair up with the veteran from AC Milan, as he plays against many Spanish internationals on a weekly basis.
Back by popular demand is the defensive midfield trio of Carlos Sánchez, Freddy Guarin and Abel Aguilar. Aguilar has played a critical role for newly promoted Hércules, while Guarin has been playing out of his skin for FC Porto in the past couple of months. Absent from the national team picture for the past three years for unknown reasons is Sánchez. An everyday starter for Valenciennes, Sánchez is exactly what the midfield needs—a ball winner/distributor; something that Jhon Viáfara and John Restrepo have struggled to do under Gómez.
Attacking-wise, Gómez has brought together many strikers and wingers that fans have wanted to see at the same time such as Radamel Falcao, Hugo Rodallega, Dayro Moreno, Gio Moreno and Juan Cuadrado. Cuadrado, who plays seldom for Udinese, has been brilliant in the yellow shirt and could be a great option to use on the right flank. Dayro is another playmaker that can add some value to the other wing. Adrian Ramos is probably the most questionable call-up as he has not shown much on the left side in the last few friendly competitions.
Considering that Falcao has recently come back from a short-term injury, he will probably share minutes with Rodallega as the lone striker in Gomez' 4-2-3-1 formation. During the World Cup qualifiers, past coach Ed Lara used a 4-3-2-1 formation, which may make more sense against the best attacking team in the world. Three defensive midfielders coupled with Cuadrado and Dayro as the two attacking midfielders with Falcao or Rodallega as the main striker would be a nice team to try out.
Even though he has been used in just about every match by Gómez, Gio Moreno may benefit coming off the bench as his style of play may not work against Spain. For every brilliant play the current No. 10 has, he does have the tendency to make several mistakes, which is still better than prior playmakers used by Colombia. But against a team like Spain, mistakes have to be kept to a minimum otherwise the final result will not be favorable.
The main player missing from Colombia is teenage wunderkind James Rodriguez from FC Porto. Over the past two months, the winger has been stepping up for a team that is on a roll not only in Portugal, but also in the Europa League. Perhaps his time will come after the sub-20 World Cup, which is held in Colombia this summer. Nevertheless, he is ready for the big time.
Spain, as of this writing, has yet to announce their team, but manager Vincente del Bosque will most likely call upon the core Barcelona squad, so Colombia better be prepared to face the Spain team that won the World Cup and not the experimental lineup that Argentina defeated a few months ago.
Brazil vs. France
Over the years, Brazil has always been pushed to the limit by France. 1998 and 2006 are the first two games that come to everyone's mind. But long gone are the days of Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Zidane. The current French side is still trying to find some sort of identity while Brazil has been playing very well with what has been essentially a new team since the 2010 World Cup.
The biggest twist for Brazil is the return of Julio Cesar in between the posts. Will he be the keeper for Brazil come Copa América time? Even though he has been battling through injuries this season, he still has a few years left in him as Brazil's top No. 1. In defense, Dani Alves and Andre Santos will feature as the fullbacks, while David Luiz and Thiago Silva will hold the fort down in the middle. Luiz has been a hot topic as of late, due to his recent signing by Chelsea.
In Brazil's midfield, Hernanes gets a well deserved call-up due to his scintillating form at Lazio. Newcomers Renato Augusto and Jadson will hopefully get time to show off their playmaking ability that has made them turn into top midfielders in Germany and Ukraine. Talent is definitely deep in the playmaking department as there are several other options who are either out injured or waiting for another chance to wear the yellow and blue. Lucas and Ramires will most likely keep the balance in the midfield, with Anderson as added depth as he returns to the Seleção after a long hiatus.
Will Julio Cesar remain as the top keeper for Brazil?
Missing up front for this match is Neymar who is currently lighting up the scoreboard in the sub-20 South American Championships. In his absence, Pato will aim to add more goals to his stat line under Menezes, while Robinho will continue to wear the armband. Watch out for André and Hulk to come off the bench in the second half.
With Cesar being the only senior veteran from the 2010 team returning for this game, it certainly appears that Menezes is not going to be mixing up players from the Dunga era from his new team. Ramires, Alves and Robinho are from the Dunga era too, but have more long-term potential than players like Maicon, Lucio, Juan, Kaká, Elano and Luis Fabiano.
Laurent Blanc has his work cut out for him as his team is without Samir Nasri, who has been amazing for Arsenal this year. Other Gunners called up include Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy, Laurent Koscielny and Abou Diaby. The rest of the team has no visible leadership except for Éric Abidal or Florent Malouda.
Up front, the most experienced striker is Karim Benzema, who has been on a downward spiral since leaving Lyon two seasons ago. France's lack of chemistry will be exposed against a Brazil team that has been clicking since day one of the Menezes era.
Next week will certainly be a great preparation week for these South American teams as they continue their preparation for the Copa América.