Forget about European football for just one summer. During the month of July, the 43rd edition of the Copa América will be held in Argentina.
What happened last summer during the 2010 World Cup is now a thing of the past while those nations who did not qualify for the World Cup will use this tournament as a way to establish momentum for the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Group A will feature Argentina, Colombia, Boliva and Costa Rica.
Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela comprise Group B.
The final group, Group C, has Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and Peru.
In 2007, Argentina was well on their way to win the tournament, thanks to the heroics of Juan Roman Riquelme, Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, but a makeshift Brazil squad with the likes of Julio Baptista, Vagner Love, Doni and top scorer Robinho surprised Argentina 3-0 en route to back-to-back Copa America titles (both of them against Argentina too).
This Copa America will not feature Riquelme, Love, Doni, Baptista, but players like Gonzalo Higuain will make their Copa America debut along with the likes of Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Javier Pastore, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, along with several others.
Costa Rica and Mexico will be bringing sub-23 teams as the North American representatives. Kudos to Costa Rica for putting together a side as a last minute replacement for Japan who was unable to attend the South American tournament.
Hopefully, the Mexicans will stay away from chicken and meat before the games begin to avoid any drama.
Since 1993, Argentina has not won any official FIFA tournament. With the competition in their backyard, the pressure is on manager Sergio Batista to win an international competition and earn a place in the 2013 Confederations Cup and make up for all the pain Argentina had to endure while under prior manager Diego Maradona.
So, outside of Lionel Messi, who else can we expect big things from? While each team will have that one marquee player to focus on, there is that special X-factor that needs to be kept in mind as well.
The following gives an overview of what will make up the tournament of the year.
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Argentina, the host nation....where to begin?
Since taking over Diego Maradona's role as manager, Sergio Batista has done a decent job of cleaning up the mess Maradona made. Bringing back Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso has definitely been a step in the right direction, but Batista's issue with striker Carlos Tevez have created concern that there could be potential chemistry issues.
Fortunately, a recent 4-0 victory over Albania eliminated such doubts.
Between Sergio Romero, Mariano Andujar and Juan Carrizo, there is not much of a difference in quality between the three which is a good thing, but whichever keeper is the No. 1 for the Albiceleste will hopefully be the lesser of three evils.
The main problem will not be who is in between the sticks but who is anchoring the backline.
Argentina's best defense is really their offense, but when the time comes when opposing teams attack, the defense is where Argentina is at its weakest.
On the right side of the defense will most likely feature ageless veteran Javier Zanetti. Despite being omitted from the 2010 World Cup squad, he continues to play at a world class level and has been a regular under Batista.
On the left side, we may most likely see young Marcos Rojo who has looked impressive in recent friendlies and adds pace to a position that has been held down by Gabriel Heinze for quite some time. Hopefully Rojo will be a long term option at left back for many years to come.
The biggest area of concern is who will be in the middle. Between Nicolas Burdisso, Ezequiel Garay, Gabriel Milito and Nicolas Pareja you have a combination of inexperience and age working against the Argentines.
Milito and Burdisso are not necessarily at the top of their game anymore while Pareja and Garay have not featured as much at this level. While the defense will be able to hopefully gel during the group stage.
The true test will come against teams like Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and possibly even Colombia.
When Riquelme was around, Argentina had one of the best midfields in the world. That ship has sailed since 2008, and just now, it seems Argentina is finally finding the right mix of ball winners and attackers.
Alongside probable captain Javier Mascherano, Cambiasso and Banega will most likely comprise the midfield that will give support to Messi and company up front.
Expect to see Javier Pastore come off the bench to add additional creativity and support to the attacking side when necessary.
Should I use the shotgun, AK-47 or the Desert Eagle? When you have Messi, Kun Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi as your options up front, it is almost better than having a gun collection.
The key is finding the right mix of strikers and midfielders to make their lives easier.
Of the group, Lionel Messi will play in the "false No. 9" role while Lavezzi and Di Maria will be used as pure wingers and Higuain, Tevez and Aguero will be looking to play the role of the scorer. Higuain missed a good portion of the second half of his club campaign at Real Madrid, so fitness will be his number one obstacle.
Aguero, while coming off a solid season with Atletico Madrid, may be distracted by his recent transfer saga. Lastly, Tevez showed that he is the people's champ by regaining a spot back on the national team due to an overwhelming outcry from the people.
All Eyes On
Lionel Messi. The focus of Argentina and the Copa America will be on the probable player of the year. Each year, he has continued to get better at FC Barcelona and is playing at levels that only Pele and Maradona can relate to.
If Messi can shine at the international level and put on his Barcelona-form, Messi will be one step closer to achieving immortality. The key will be his supporting cast.
Watch Out For
Ever Banega. The epitome of the box to box midfielder stops with Banega. His ability to drop back and play defense while distribute the ball effectively deep in the field is exactly what Argentina's midfield needs since Riquelme left the national team in 2008.
Not the flashiest of players, Banega will be Argentina's version of Marcos Senna aka the silent assassin.
Argentina should cruise through the group stage with Colombia providing the most resistance. La Albiceleste will aim to make the finals for the third time in a row.
Unfortunately, the pressure and weak defense will not allow them to win the Copa America on their home soil.
Guarin and Falcao - Can the Porto duo take Colombia to new heights?
Ten years ago, Colombia hosted the Copa America and won it all. Ever since then, it has been a gradual slide into mediocrity for los cafeteros. The 2007 Copa America was an ugly display after heading into the tournament with several misleading victories.
This time around, Colombia has faced stiffer competition over the past several months and look to be forming a squad that can not only compete in this tournament but will hopefully qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Between Hernan Dario Gomez (manager during the '98 World Cup) and Leonel Alvarez (defensive midfielder '90 and '94 World Cup), Colombia is ready to regain a spot amongst the elite of South America.
David Ospina will be the man in charge of keeping the ball out of the net. Currently making a name for himself at OGC Nice, Ospina has had a trial by fire experience over the past year. While at times, he has appeared brilliant in goal, there have been a few brain farts that have cost Colombia to win certain friendlies.
Hopefully, these mistakes will be out of his system come the group stages.
Backing him up are Neco Martinez and Breiner Castillo who had successful performances in the Colombian league. Both keepers bring experience to the table and will be ready for international play if need be.
Historically, Colombia has been known for developing strong defenders. Two of Colombia's keys to success are on the flanks. Juan Zuniga and Pablo Armero will be carrying a huge weight on their shoulders in the group stages.
While Armero is developing a name for himself as a speed demon with an attacking prowess, Zuniga has been able to become Colombia's version of Dani Alves.
Centrally, the defense will be led by aging veteran Mario Yepes. What he lacks in pace these days, he makes up with experience, leadership and awareness, traits that only improve as time goes on.
This will probably be Super Mario's last chance to win a second trophy for Colombia, so expect him to leave it out on the field.
Alongside him will be either Cristian Zapata, Luis Perea or Aquivaldo Mosquera.
Zapata is definitely a long term part of the team's plans, but he has seen limited opportunities over the past year, which has been a big mistake by the management. Mosquera provides both size and experience in the middle but has seen limited playing time as well. Perea will most likely pair up with Yepes but has been erratic on several occasions.
With Zuniga playing as a midfielder for club team Napoli, a good combination would be to place Perea on the right and Yepes/Zapata in the middle and have Zuniga play in the right midfield.
Anytime people reminisce about Colombia, the first names that come to mind are Carlos Valderama, Freddy Rincon, Leonel Alvarez, Chicho Serna and Bernard Redin. Those days are over and have been for quite some time.
While the midfield has struggled to maintain possession, things turned for the best when Gomez decided to use a midfield comprised of Abel Aguilar, Freddy Guarin and Carlos Sanchez. Against Spain in a recent friendly, this midfield looked very impressive and played with a composure that has been absent for quite some time.
Between these three midfielders, you have three quality box to box midfielders who can win the ball and maintain control. In addition to this, there is Guarin who has become a midfield general of sorts.
In addition to his ball-winning ability, Guarin has shown the ability to be a playmaker, set-piece taker and shot taker from anywhere on the pitch.
Other attacking midfielders include Dayro Moreno who is capable of playing as a playmaker/striker/winger, Elkin Soto, who will most likely start as a left winger and Juan Cuadrado who will come off the bench and give the Colombians the necessary spark as a super sub.
For the first time in a long time, Colombia has one of the best strikers in the world in Radamel Falcao. Coming off an impressive Porto campaign (alongside Guarin), Falcao will be the No. 9 looking to carry his Porto form at the international level.
Depending on which formation Gomez decides to use, Falcao could be by himself up front should Colombia stick with a 4-5-1 formation or if using a 4-4-2, Falcao maybe paired up with Teo Gutierrez who was terrific for Racing in Argentina the past few months.
Adrian Ramos and Hugo Rodallega are also both quite versatile and can serve as either a winger or a striker. Jackson Martinez is another capable striker of causing some damage (three goals in six games), but it will be Falcao who will be leading the attack. Needless to say, Colombia has a number of solid options up front.
All Eyes On
Radamel Falcao. The Porto striker has yet to transfer his club form to the international level, so there is a lot riding at stake for the young Colombian. His awareness inside the 18 is rivaled by few.
Despite his average height, Falcao has scored numerous goals via headers, so hopefully Gomez/Alvarez have taken note of how best to adopt some of Porto's strategies to make Falcao be as effective.
Watch Out For
Fredy Guarin. Falcao's teammate at Porto was one of the keys to success for the Portuguese club this year. At the start of the 2010 club season, Guarin was rated no higher than occasional starter with some potential, but as the season progressed and after adding some muscle, Guarin became Porto's X-factor by scoring crucial goals in key games and setting up many critical goals en route to Europa League glory.
This form was evident in some of the recent friendlies and will be crucial if Colombia plans to win some games this tournament. Colombia has been missing a midfield general for quite some time and now is the time for Guarin to step up and become a household name.
Colombia should defeat Bolivia and Costa Rica, but will struggle against Argentina. In the round of eight, Colombia will sneak a victory past Chile but will be stopped by Argentina in the semi finals. Los Cafeteros will come out of this tournament with their heads up as they prepare for the 2014 World Cup.
Marcelo Moreno - looking to make an impact in his first Copa America
Without the altitude to aid the Bolivians, the expectations will not be too high for one of the cellar dwellers of South American football. Comprised mostly of players that are not typical household names, Bolivia has nothing to lose and will hope to upset the Colombians and Argentinians.
The top two keepers for Bolivia will be Carlos Arias and Sergio Galarza. Both are veterans of the game and have seen their fair share of Copa America action. Arias will most likely lead the way, but Galarza will be eagerly waiting to step in, if necessary.
Leading the defense and the rest of the squad will be Ronald Raldes, who has been a regular in the Bolivian national team picture for the past ten years. Playing alongside Raldes will be Lorgio Alvarez and Miguel Hoyos. All three have played together in prior Copa Americas, so the experience between these three will be vital if they plan to keep up and maintain the likes of Messi, Tevez, Higuain and Falcao.
At the heart of the team is Ronald Garcia and Joselito Vaca. Like the previously mentioned defenders, both have been mainstays in the Bolivian national team picture for quite some time. While both are not household names like Javier Mascherano, their combined experiences have enabled some favorable results during the 2010 World Cup Qualifying campaign.
Although not as deep up front as Colombia or Argentina, Bolivia does have up and coming striker Marcelo Moreno (half Brazilian / half Bolivian). One of Bolivia's few players to feature in Europe, Moreno scored seven goals this season for Ukrainian powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk. He may not have seen much action in the Champion's League, but he was integral to the club's successful run this season. His main claim to fame was his scoring ability during the 2008 Copa Libertadores for Brazilian club Cruziero. If anyone is going to put the ball in the goal, it will be Moreno.
All Eyes On / Watch Out For
While Bolivia may not be the team to see in the Copa America, the duo of Moreno and winger Juan Arce will be a formidable duo. While this will be Moreno's first Copa America, Arce has been to the prior two Copa Americas, so the mix of youth and experience will come hand in hand for the Bolivians.
Argentina will not allow the Bolivians to come anywhere close to winning 6-1 again and with Colombia's top players just coming off of great club seasons, Bolivia will most likely finish in third in their group, with their only victory to come against a young and tired Costa Rica side.
After the unfortunate Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Japan was unable to put together their best team after scheduling problems with the J. League and with conflicts with European teams releasing Japanese players so Japan had no other choice but to withdraw from the Copa America. By mid May, Costa Rica accepted CONMEBOL's invitation to participate in the South American championship.
Since the main team is currently playing in the Gold Cup, it would be unreasonable to expect a full strength Costa Rica team, so instead we are going to see the U-23 squad with a few overage players that will be vying for a spot in the 2012 Olympics. Many of the players featured in the 2009 U-20 World Cup where the squad finished in fourth place.
A few of the players will be performing double duty and playing in both the Gold Cup and Copa America, so it will be a busy two months for Los Ticos. After a quarterfinals defeat to Honduras, Costa Rica will have just two weeks to rest up before facing even stiffer competition than what they saw in the United States - and with a younger team.
The best goalkeeper of the 2009 U-20 World Cup, Esteban Alvarado will most likely be the man who will be the shot stopper. Alvarado is currently plying his trade as AZ Alkmaar as backup to Argentine keeper Sergio Romero. While he has not seen any minutes yet during the Gold Cup, backup keeper Leonel Moreira will hope to get a cap or two during the Copa America. If both keepers feature against the likes of Colombia and Argentina, it will be a good growing experience trying to stop shots from some of Europe's best strikers.
Made up of mostly players from the Costa Rican First Division league, the heart of the defense includes players such as Heiner Mora, Jhonny Acosta and Oscar Duarte who will be pulling double duty between the Copa America and the Gold Cup. Mora and Acosta make up two of the five players who are over the age of 23 years old. Hopefully, the confidence from the Gold Cup can carry into the Copa America for this rather inexperienced defensive side.
Even if Costa Rica comes home empty handed from the group stage, at the very minimum, inexperienced players such as Allen Guevara, Randall Barnes and David Guzman will have picked up a year's worth of international experience from the all the action they will have seen between the Gold Cup and Copa America. Even though these midfielders face competition from other Costa Ricans for the majority of the year, having the opportunity to face off against North and South America's finest midfielders will help Costa Rica grow exponentially over the next few years.
No position will be without rest this summer. Strikers that will have seen competition in both hemispheres include Diego Madrigal, Joel Campbell and Josue Martinez. If there is anything that Los Ticos have going for them heading into the Copa America is establishing team chemistry will not be an issue. The strikers along with several defenders and midfielders have played together at both the club level at CD Saprissa and the international level. So, hopefully the chemistry will help the Cosa Ricans put a few goals up on the scoreboard.
All Eyes On
Esteban Alvaredo. The top keeper of the 2009 U-20 World Cup will have his hands full fending off some of the worlds best strikers that just so happen to be in Group A. There will be no shame in giving up goals to Messi and Falcao. Not even the top keepers even the world have been able to stop two of Europe's best goal scorers this year.
Watch Out For
Josue Martinez. The 21-year old striker made his debut for the senior national team before making his debut for CD Saprissa. Even though he featured in only one match during the Gold Cup run, he will be getting plenty of minutes in Argentina. Another member of the 2009 U-20 World Cup squad, Martinez will soon become a force to be reckoned with amongst the North American football scene.
As promising as this young team appears, Los Ticos will be in over their head against the likes of Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia - three teams with plenty of international experience and world class talent. It may not be today, but a couple of years from now Costa Rica will appreciate the growing pains they went through by facing some of the world's best. Most likely this squad will finish in last place in Group A, but they will come out of the tournament victorious for the amount of experience that will prepare the team for the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers and future Gold Cup tournaments
Messi and Argentina set to use the Group Stage to set the tone for the rest of the Copa America
Argentina will not waste anytime setting the tone for the Copa America by looking to get the support of all the home fans through some high scoring games against Bolivia and Costa Rica.
Colombia will put up some resistance, but Argentina has too much to lose if they show early signs of struggle in the first three matches of the group stage.
Argentina will most likely win the group with Colombia as a distant runner-up as both will advance to the knockout rounds. Argentina will look to dominate each game, while Colombia looks to find their identity after several years of being lost in the South American shuffle.
Meanwhile Bolivia and Costa Rica will duke it out to see who stays out of the bottom of the group. Neither team has anything to lose, so watch for both teams to put up a fight against South America's finest.