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Jul 5, 2011

Minnows impress as Copa begins

As predicted in the pre-tournament preview this was going to be the most even tournament for a while. We've now seen all the sides in action in the 2011 Copa America, and it has, if nothing else, been an incredibly closely-matched event thus far. Argentina failed to get revenge on Bolivia for the 6-1 defeat in La Paz last time the sides met; Group B didn't see a single goal in two matches on Sunday, and most people's third favourites Uruguay couldn't beat Peru on Monday night.

It's the first time in 43 editions that both Argentina and Brazil have failed to win their opening games. Needless to say, very little credit has gone to their opponents. It's also a mark of the media obsession with the giants that performances elsewhere - Colombia's loose but eventually good-enough 1-0 win over Costa Rica in Argentina's Group A; Chile's second half comeback in their 2-1 win over Mexico on Monday night - haven't had anywhere near as much attention in the host country's press as the big boys' slip-ups.

Credit after this opening to the tournament should go to the less heralded opponents, though. Bolivia on the opening night could have been forgiven for freezing initially against the hosts and favourites (although it's the third tournament in a row in which they've been charged with playing the hosts on the opening day), or, after realising most of their opponents were playing without much heed for their team-mates, for getting a bit cocky. But they kept their focus and discipline throughout, capitalised from poor marking to score what Lionel Messi afterwards (frustratedly) called 'a sloppy goal', and held out in the face of the late onslaught to restrict them to just Sergio Agüero's equaliser.

On Sunday, I was at the Estadio Unico de La Plata for the holders' debut in this year's tournament against Venezuela, and found the performance of the 2007 hosts perhaps even more impressive than Bolivia's had been two days previously. I'd go so far, with an honourable nod to Nicolas Lodeiro's first half performance for Uruguay on Monday evening, as to say Tomas Rincon, Venezuela's deep-lying midfielder, has been my player of the opening matches. One eminent journalistic colleague commented before the game that, 'he plays for Hamburg, so he can't be crap,' and indeed he wasn't.

Much has been written (some of it by me) pre-tournament about Neymar and Ganso, Brazil's Copa Libertadores-winning Santos duo, but the latter was comprehensively strangled out of the game by Rincon and his partner Franklin Lucena, who anticipated the tactic I suggested in my preview might be Argentina's best bet against Brazil; cut off supply to the forwards. By so doing, Brazil were forced to bypass Ganso constantly (though he was in the game more at the start of the second half, before fading again), and apart from Alexandre Pato's shot crashing back off the crossbar, it wasn't a strategy that looked like making a breakthrough.

Argentina simply looked too individualistic, with Lionel Messi the only forward player looking for team-mates, and other than Ever Banega and Javier Zanetti, he wasn't really able to link with any other Argentine players to any great degree; Ezequiel Lavezzi, on receiving one pass from Messi which would have seen a Barcelona player in a similar position lay it back and look to support the attack, hared off towards the Bolivian goal line with the ball instead, before wasting the chance to cross (not that there was anyone there to cross to; he'd outrun them all). Messi has once again been jumped on for not playing for Argentina the way he does for Barcelona, but for that to happen Argentina have to play for him the way Barcelona do as well.

The only victors so far, then, are Colombia - who got a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a frustrating game on Saturday - and Chile. Colombia looked like they should have scored more than they managed, but were ineffective up front, which considering some of the forwards they've got to call on was surprising. That said, they showed some of their quality with Adrian Ramos' goal, set up with a sublimely weighted through ball from Fredy Guarín (whose name, before anyone writes in, seems to be spelt with either one or two 'd's depending what side of the bed he's woken up on).

It was Monday that finally saw the tournament liven up a bit though, after the weekend had largely been interesting rather than enthralling. Uruguay were expected to comfortably beat Peru, but fell behind in the first half before another brilliant through ball - this one from Nicolas Lodeiro, who's been out injured for virtually the whole of 2010-11 for Ajax - allowed Luis Suarez to equalise.

Chile were also favourites against Mexico (who like Costa Rica field an almost entirely under-23 side in this competition, eight of whom only joined the squad late last week after a scandal involving prostitutes at the team hotel in Ecuador), but also fell behind, before rallying to give us the competition's first turnaround with a 2-1 win.

Both those matches were played back-to-back in the same stadium, in San Juan. Uruguay versus Peru was therefore played to a backing of around 10,000 Chilean fans, who had travelled over the border that same day. It's said to be the highest number of people ever to cross the border at once, and it's a record that will surely be beaten when Chile play Uruguay in Mendoza, in a larger stadium even closer to the border crossing, on Friday.

For now though, the Copa's main record is that stat I mentioned about Argentina and Brazil both failing to win. There's a distance to go yet, but the first games have at least lived up the billing as the most even Copa in a long time. As the Argentine journalist behind me on Sunday remarked approvingly during one maroon-shirted attack, 'Venezuela aren't showing [Brazil] any respect!' Long may that continue.

• You can follow me on Twitter @HEGS_com and also on my blog.

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