Copa America 2015: Pivotal Factors to Decide Group A
The 2015 Copa America is on the verge of getting under way in Chile, so before it does, we're going to look at each of the three groups and see which are the most important matchups, individuals and scenarios.
With two automatic spots and one potential third-place spot to fight for in order to reach the knockout stages, all four sides in Group A will have hopes of extending their stay in the competition. Here are the key factors that will determine who finishes where in the Group A.
You can read our guides to each of the Group A teams here:
How Do Chile Cope Playing in Front of Home Fans with Greater Expectation?
We'll begin by looking at the host nation.
Chile have won plenty of admirers over the past two World Cups for their high-energy game plan, effective formation use and exciting individual stars, including more than a couple who seem to raise the bar when wearing international colours.
In turn, though, those good runs at the World Cup will mean higher levels of expectation from the home support, especially on home soil. Chile have never won the Copa America and haven't even reached the last four in their past four attempts, so improvement and coping with the home fans' fervent but demanding support will be key.
In World Cup qualifiers, Chile won six of their eight home matches, losing to Colombia and Argentina.
Mexico's 'B' Team: Inferiority Complex or a Point to Prove?
With Mexico set to take part in both the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the CONMEBOL Copa America this summer, manager Miguel Herrera has largely split up his squad, sending far more of the big guns to their "own" tournament rather than to the Copa, where they are playing as invitees.
For the majority of those players in this Copa squad, then, there is something of a wake-up call to be had: You're not currently among the pick of the nation's best.
Different players react to that sort of news in different ways, and how the overriding group mentality responds will be crucial to how far El Tri go. Will they decide they need to show they can compete with the Gold Cup squad by beating what are generally far better teams at the Copa America? Or will they shrink, fearing a lack of trust in their ability and fail to go toe-to-toe with even Bolivia and Ecuador?
Bolivia's Wretched Run Outside of La Paz
It is rare that Bolivia manage to pick up points or even friendly wins outside of the high-altitude venue of their country's capital, La Paz.
Unsurprisingly, they didn't pick up a single win in 2014 World Cup qualifying on the road. They have never won a finals match at the World Cup—or the Confederations Cup—and haven't won a single fixture at the Copa America since 1997, when they hosted the tournament.
Hopes aren't exactly sky high that El Verde will suddenly end that run in Chile, but at the same time, they will know a single surprise result could change everything, with three out of the four teams potentially going through.
Ending that long run is another matter, though.
Ecuador's Missing Men
Ecuador will go into the finals with plenty of hope of reaching the knockout stages, but they will find their options and quality levels in the final third severely depleted from their best team.
Striker Felipe Caicedo, scorer of seven goals in World Cup qualifying and comfortably the usual squad's top scorer, will miss the tournament through injury—and he's not the only one. The team's captain at the finals in Brazil last year, Manchester United's Antonio Valencia, is out as well, while the likes of the experienced Edison Mendez and Segundo Castillo are no longer part of the setup.
Mexico-based midfielder Michael Arroyo also missed out this time through injury—and all those players will restrict Ecuador's ability to impact on the final third, either in buildup or delivery and execution of chances.
2 Coaches in Place for a Matter of Months
A few weeks before tournaments begin isn't usually the time for change, but half of Group A heads into the Copa with relatively new managers in place.
Gustavo Quinteros took over with Ecuador in January, losing both of his friendly matches in charge so far, while Mauricio Soria hasn't had a single game leading Bolivia yet, taking the helm in March.
Both of these coaches might be seen as being in a win-win situation: If they achieve nothing, it's because they haven't had enough time to shape the side, while they would instantly command respect and garner hope for the future if they do well.
Perennial Disappointment or Hope Springs Eternal?
Group A's four teams can boast a solitary Copa America trophy win between them—and perhaps surprisingly, that title belongs to Bolivia.
Their win in 1963 came on home soil, and they have only reached one other final since—also played in their own country. Chile have made the final four times and Mexico twice, but neither managed to take that final step and lift the trophy. Ecuador, meanwhile, have never made it past the last four.
Can one of these four sides make such a good start to the Copa that it spurs them on to greater achievements later on in the tournament? A single slip-up in the group stage wouldn't be devastating, given that three teams could go through, but it could play havoc on the mindsets of players in the latter games.
The 3rd-Place Gamble
Common sense would dictate that Chile are going to be the strongest side in Group A, based on their usual tournament form and with the Copa being on home soil.
After that, though, it looks a bit of a toss-up between an under-strength Ecuador and a split squad for Mexico. Additionally, as poor as their record is, you can't simply assume Bolivia won't turn up with the intention to create a little piece of their own history.
This is a factor that will affect each of the three groups: From the three sides who end in third, only two will progress. Points, goal difference, goals scored and, if necessary, lots drawn—those are the classification criteria for the third-place teams to dictate which two go through.
If Mexico or Ecuador slip up against Bolivia early on, the matchup between those two sides on the final group matchday could be extremely telling.
Avoiding Brazil or Colombia
In terms of the knockout stages, the format is already set for which teams face each other.
For Group A, the winners will play the third-place team from either Group B or C (potentially Paraguay or Venezuela), while third place (if they qualify) will face the winners of Group B (most likely Argentina). Group A's runner-up, though, face the team in the same position from Group C—which is extremely likely to be either Brazil or Colombia.
While finishing second to hosts Chile would be no bad thing for the other three nations in Group A, it looks very much like a poisoned chalice of a qualification place in that they will end up facing one of the favourites however Group C finishes.
If Chile slip up and finish second in their own group, then a potential rematch of a classic World Cup game from 2014 could be on the cards.
World Cup Hangovers?
Summer international tournaments are exciting, entertaining and spectacular at times—but they also mean reduced breaks for the players.
For several of the competing nations, certainly the major ones in the Copa America, this will be a second successive summer without a real break—and for Brazil and Uruguay, who took part in the 2013 Confederations Cup, it's a third summer tournament in a row.
For Group A though, we're looking in particular at the stars such as Arturo Vidal, whose club season went all the way to the first week in June, Alexis Sanchez and Enner Valencia, who had no winter break in England, and Rafael Marquez, who is 36 and has played a full summer, full season and now another summer, but the list goes on.
The hope has to be that these players can still perform to top capacity, but don't be surprised to see a game or two of less quality than expected.
Ultimately, for Group A, we're expecting the real quality of certain players to shine through during the group-stage games.
Bolivia have a poor record and are unfancied for a reason. Only six of their 23-man squad play their club football outside of Bolivia, with home clubs the Strongest, Bolivar and Blooming contributing much of the squad's players. Ecuador have star names missing, and Mexico have sent more of their established names to feature at the Gold Cup instead, so it is host nation Chile who have the big early advantage here.
Claudio Bravo is a treble winner at Barcelona. Arturo Vidal won the double with Juventus. Alexis Sanchez won the FA Cup at Arsenal. Elsewhere, there are players who play for Fiorentina, Inter Milan, Internacional, Boca Juniors. Big clubs, big expectations and quality players to even feature, never mind play a vital part.
The Chile squad is the best in Group A, and they'll be expected to showcase that dominance.
Over to you, 2015 Copa hosts.