Copa America preview: Much is expected of Chile, Argentina and Brazil
The 12 teams in the Copa America are divided into three groups. The favourites to win the competition are always the three seeded sides: Argentina, Brazil and the hosts, in this case Chile.
Since the competition was brought back from disuse in 1987, in 11 iterations there have been only two in which the winner did not come from this triumvirate -- both, coincidentally enough, when the action took place in Argentina. In both 1987 and last time out, in 2011, neighbours Uruguay ended up spoiling the party and carrying home the trophy.
That aside, if we are looking for the competition winners, then the obvious starting point is the seeded trio: Brazil in Group C, Argentina in Group B and Chile in Group A. All of them go into the tournament with a mix of fear and optimism.
The Copa kicks off a new cycle of competitive football in South America. Many teams are primarily concerned with whipping a side into shape for the World Cup qualifiers, which get underway in October. That, though, does not apply to the hosts. Chile have always been building specifically for this tournament.
Unlike Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru, Chile have never won the title, despite participating all the way back to the inaugural version of the tournament 99 years ago. This, by popular consensus, is Chile's best-ever team; its performance in the past two World Cups is their best-ever in that competition, with the exception of 1962, which they hosted.
Then, of course, they had home advantage. Will it work in their favour once more? Or will it turn out to be home disadvantage?
Coach Jorge Sampaoli has been worried by this ever since he saw at firsthand the effects of hosting last year's World Cup on the Brazil players. Chile were the width of a crossbar away from knocking Brazil out in the second round, only succumbing in a penalty shootout. How can Sampaoli shield his players from the kind of pressure that left Brazil a crumpled mess?
Sampaoli had intended to prepare his team in Europe, probably in Spain, and then bring them home just a few days before the Copa. The plan was abandoned just more than a month ago, when it became clear some of the key players would still be in action for their European clubs until early June. Instead, they have been training in a converted monastery on the outskirts of Santiago, with the coach zealously guarding the privacy of the camp.
The other concern is that the goals have dried up. At the end of March, Chile lost 2-0 to Iran and 1-0 to Brazil. Last Friday they scored early in their warm-up friendly against El Salvador, and the crowd sat back in expectation of a rout. But 1-0 was the final score. For all their high energy and attacking ambition, Chile are lacking the ruthless touch. Plus, their method of play can leave them dangerously open to the opposing counter-attack.
The pressure on Argentina is the tick-tick of the clock. They have not won a senior title since the Copa in 1993. Their oldest outfield players, Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez, came very close. Argentina were seconds away from winning the 2004 Copa in Peru, but Brazil equalised with the last kick of the game and went on to win the penalty shootout.
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Eleven years on, Mascherano and Tevez are still waiting. Time is running out for them and also for Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, all of whom will have reached the 30 mark by the time the next World Cup is played.
It is for this reason that there is no air of experimentation about coach Gerardo Martino's squad. Young names such as Luciano Vietto, Pablo Dybala and Mauro Icardi have had fine European seasons, but it was not enough for them to force their way onto the plane. Instead, fully 14 of the 23-man squad were at last year's World Cup, and there are recalls for Tevez and centre-back Nicolas Otamendi, who played in South Africa 2010. Only three of the squad were born in the 1990s, a number that only the similarly experienced Chile group cannot surpass.
The good news is that all of the big-name stars look to be in fine condition. At the World Cup last year, they were all injured or running on empty. But Aguero and Di Maria looked razor sharp in the 5-0 win over Bolivia on Saturday, a few hours after Messi gave another wonderful performance in the final of the Champions League.
This, though, could well put more strain on the defensive unit. Argentina's embarrassment of riches up front is not matched by their defensive resources, where lack of pace is a problem. Last year in the World Cup, then-coach Alejandro Sabella covered it up as consequence of the injuries to his stars. He was able to play a more cautious game and drop his defence deeper. With the stars now coming out to play, the defence will be more exposed.
Brazil got a taste of the challenge in front of them when they played Mexico in Sao Paulo on Sunday. It was their first home match since the World Cup disaster, and the crowd were very quiet. When the team were announced, some even booed the name of Fred, thinking it was last year's much-criticised centre-forward rather than the young midfielder brought into the squad because of the injury to Luiz Gustavo.
Brazil's 2-0 win was a thoroughly pedestrian affair -- the two goals, though, stood out as fine collective moves, evidence that this team might be capable of winning back some of the pride and prestige that was lost last year.
Whatever happens in Chile, the stain in the carpet left by the 2014 World Cup is not going to wash out in a hurry. But the team have picked up some confidence, now bringing their winning streak under coach Dunga to nine games -- and with captain Neymar poised to return after his Champions League exploits, there are grounds for optimism. And the team should pick up more momentum next Sunday against Peru, hardly the most threatening of opponents.
Dunga, though, will need to keep looking over his shoulder. He is not the most popular of coaches, and his snarling bad temper could be designed to make enemies in the media. He has, though, enjoyed considerable support from the CBF, Brazil's football association, who are currently rocked by FIFA's ongoing corruption scandal. If there is a change at the top, then Dunga's position will inevitably be weakened -- unless he can back it up with victories and titles.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.