Copa America Group B: Brazil, Ecuador aim for top spot, Peru looks to surprise
The Copa America is set to kick off, and while Group B might not boast the most marquee matchups, Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti and Peru will all be eager to earn a spot in the knockout stages. Here is what to expect over the next week-and-a-half in Group B.
It probably isn't fair to Ecuador, or even Peru, to say that Group B is simply "the group of Brazil" but there's no denying that a majority expects the Selecao to come out on top. Brazil, Ecuador and Peru will be joined by Haiti, the weakest of the CONCACAF teams taking part in the tournament, which makes Brazil's road to the knockout stages all the more secure. With all signs pointing to Haiti being the recipient of some lopsided scorelines, the right to escape the group in second place probably will come down to Ecuador and Peru, and perhaps even goal differential.
But despite expectations of success for Brazil, the Selecao isn't exactly riding high at the moment, and they won't have their most talented players to bail them out if things go poorly either. With Neymar preparing for the Olympics and Bayern Munich forward Douglas Costa ruled out because of an injury, the team will rely on their supporting cast to get the job done. Given these absences, perhaps Group B can more accurately be described as "the group of opportunity" -- opportunity for Ecuador to upend expectations by finishing in the top spot.
Must-see game: Brazil vs. Ecuador
The match between the group's presumed favorites, Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, is the opener for both teams. If one can manage to take three points, they will become the immediate favorite to win the group. A draw, on the other hand, will set the stage for a tense group stage that could depend on goal differentials against Peru and Haiti, with each team's date against the latter looming particularly large.
Neymar's absence eliminates that specific defensive issue for La Tricolor. For Brazil, it presents a larger problem: coach Dunga's side has become over-reliant on Neymar in recent years, so his absence won't be a mere matter of replacement. Dunga will need to cajole a young team that has been content with getting the ball to Neymar's feet and letting him do the heavy lifting into creating chances and finding goals as a unit. Meanwhile, Ecuador's hopes will rest largely on the shoulders of West Ham striker Enner Valencia, whose deft finishing ability will be their best bet for goals.
Key player: Willian, Brazil
The absences of Neymar and Douglas Costa leave several second-choice players to choose from here, with Chelsea winger Willian emerging as the man most capable of making an impact. Willian managed to enhance his reputation over the 2015-16 Premier League season despite a poor run from Chelsea, and although he has yet to become the creative force for his country that a tournament like the Copa America figures to demand, now is as good a time as ever to make his presence felt at the international level. Brazil are in need of a player capable of providing the dynamic play that the likes of Neymar and Costa are known for producing, and Willian best fits the bill.
Dark horse team: Peru
With Brazil and Ecuador the clear favorites, and Haiti happy with whatever results they can muster, Peru becomes the obvious pick for Group B dark horse. La Blanquirroja isn't fancied by many and would have to spring a surprise run with a host of unfamiliar faces to advance -- veterans Claudio Pizarro, Jefferson Farfan, Juan Manuel Vargos and Carlos Zambrano are all out of the squad -- but don't put it past them. Peru coach Ricardo Gareca has called on a host of green players who will be eager to impress.
If Peru wishes to advance out of the group, they will have to beat Haiti by a significant margin in the opener and hold one of Brazil or Ecuador to a draw. It's a feat that's far from impossible, and while their recent CONMEBOL qualifying record doesn't bode well, they do have a habit of surprising in Copa America competition.
Prediction: 1. Brazil, 2. Ecuador, 3. Peru, 4. Haiti
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.