Opening skirmishes hint at wide-open Copa

They may have had a little bit of help from some a less than perfect pitch in La Plata and some opening match nerves from the big two, but in holding Argentina and Brazil respectively, Bolivia and Venezuela made a powerful declaration of the current strength in depth of the South American national teams.

Whoever wins the Copa America on 24 July will have to battle their way to the title but both hosts Argentina and 2014 World Cup hosts Brazil will feel they are capable of far better than they produced in their first group games.

There was a common denominator in their failure of both sides to live up to expectations – a glaring lack of patience in their play.

Argentina coach Sergio Batista was trying to wriggle out of it after Friday’s 1-1 draw with Bolivia, but the local media have months of quotes with which to expose the truth – his team is inspired by Barcelona.

But they forgot one of the chief characteristics of Pep Guardiola’s European champions on Friday – patience in possession, pulling the opposition around and then finding the moment for the dramatic change of rhythm that breaks through the defensive line.

Against Bolivia, Batista’s team were too frantic, too direct and every time they gave the ball away cheaply the Bolivians were able to breathe again, reorganise and take heart to resist the next attack.

Brazil, meanwhile, started off like a train against Venezuela but it was a train that appeared to run out of steam after the interval. In this first year of coach Mano Menezes’ reign, they have struggled to find the right attacking blend, and have often looked better with a target man striker – which is why to my mind it was a mistake to have just one player of this type in the squad, the injury-prone Fred.

Centre-forward Alexandre Pato moves beautifully and has some lovely touches, but he is not a genuine penalty area operator, and lacked support against the Venezuelans.

Brazil could have made mores use of Ramires’ capacity to burst into the box, but this would have required more intelligence, and crucially, more patience in possession.

Playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso is an outstanding prospect, but he needs to understand that playing the killer pass is not the be all and end all; that a key part of his role is to set up the opening for the killer pass to be played, like a chess master thinking several moves ahead.

There are powerful attacking options down both flanks, plus Ramires to shuttle down the middle. What was missing on Sunday was a sense of surprise, of fooling the opposition into thinking that they would do one thing, and then doing another – which takes patience.

There is an old saying in Argentine football that points out that there is a stage in the attacking move when the team should forget about the goal and look for a team-mate – and if they keep looking and keep passing, sooner or later the goal will appear.

One of the best recent sides I have seen in this respect was the Argentina team in the last Copa America, four years ago in Venezuela.

Built around midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme, they would take control of the ball and would not be in he least concerned if at half time they had barely a chance to show for all their possession. No matter, in the second half the spaces would start to appear – and with the exception of the final against Brazil, when they were counter-attacked to a 3-0 defeat, that was the script of the competition.

To be fair, though, that side did have one big advantage over the class of 2011. They may not have been playing at home, but they did benefit in a big way from the climate. Most of their matches in 2007 were played in intense heat – and after trying to keep on the Argentine carousel for an hour or so, the opposition tended to wilt.

It is a very different story at the other end of the continent. Four years ago in Venezuela it was a punishment to run around chasing the Argentines. Now, the chasers, the harriers and the markers have the chance to escape from hypothermia in the fearsome winter freeze.

Taken together, the conditions and the strength in depth of the field mean that we should be in for a fiercely competitive 43rd version of the Copa America, tight and dramatic if not always as eye catching as we might like.

There is always an element of phoney war about the group phase, because 8 of the 12 teams go through to the quarter-finals. It is probably just as well that there is an important change in the knockout stages of this Copa. If scores are level after 90 minutes, extra time will be played – 30 more minutes to break the ice, break the deadlock and warm up the Copa America.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to and I’ll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week’s postbag:

Q) I recently read that the Santos president announced Neymar is likely to stay on until at least the World Club Cup, hopefully much longer. Given you have spoken about so-called future stars moving to Europe too early and struggling to cope with a new style of play and lesser stardom, when do you think would be the most suitable time for Neymar to move? Would moving soon not help him to curb some bad habits, e.g. diving? And is the president’s announcement genuine, or are Santos employing money-making tactics?

David Wills

A) President is an elected position, so there is a certain tendency to play to the gallery. But I certainly think that it is likely that he will stay another year – for the World Club Cup and to ensure his release for the London Olympics. After that I think he will need to move – for some of the reasons that you mentioned. To fulfil his extraordinary potential at some point he will have to leave his comfort zone, especially in terms of the criteria used by referees.

Q) I watched my first ever U17 World Cup Match last night – the last 16 game between England and Argentina. There was the obvious shock of England winning a penalty shoot out in a tournament but what struck me more, as I watched through “3 Lions tinted” spectacles – there wasn’t the usual embarrassing gulf in class, technique and ball retention we see so often with the senior team. We had significantly better possession than Argentina – unheard of at the senior level, against any half decent footballing nation.

The nagging question in the back of my mind is why, if our U17s can compete technically with Argentina, what goes wrong as their careers progress? I can’t help thinking that if the same teams met up again in four or five years time, the gulf in class will have developed, as normal.

Paul Knights

A) I didn’t see the game, so I’m posting this question to see what other people think. A couple of qualifications, though. Firstly, Argentina have no great tradition at Under-17 level (in contrast with Under-20). And secondly, the number of Under-17 players who really come through is not great.

I suppose one big difference between the English and Argentine youngsters is that in four or five years time it will probably be much easier for the Argentines to be picking up regular first team experience with their clubs.

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