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WhoScored: Zabaleta-Sterling a key battle

Tactics And Analysis 11 hours ago
Read
Jul 10, 2011

Unexpected twists

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Everyone's now played two matches in the 2011 Copa América, and still none of the three pre-tournament favourites, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, has managed to win.

Fred rescues Brazil

All are third in their groups, with two draws. Brazil only even have that record thanks to a late equaliser in their Saturday match against Paraguay in Córdoba. And top of Brazil's group are the side who as recently as the last Copa América - albeit less and less during the last World Cup qualifying campaign that followed - were described as the continent's eternal whipping boys.

The old order is being riotously overturned so far in this Copa América, and whilst the goals have sometimes been lacking, they seem to be starting to arrive now: the only team yet to score are Ecuador, and Brazil's 2-2 draw with Paraguay was perhaps the most thrilling match of the competition so far. The intrigue as we approach the last set of group fixtures is as strong as ever.

One thing that was easy to predict before the tournament, and which has come to pass, at least, is that the Group C match in Mendoza between Uruguay and Chile was one of the most closely-fought affairs so far in the tournament, with Uruguay looking hugely improved from a very patchy opening showing against Peru, while Chile continued to impress going forward. A 1-1 draw leaves Chile on the brink of qualification on four points - the same total Peru have following their own decent 1-0 win over Mexico.

Saturday's Group B games improbably ended with Venezuela topping the group with four points, ahead of Paraguay and Brazil both on two, and Ecuador on one. Venezuela's game against Ecuador wasn't as much of an end-to-end thriller as Brazil's with Paraguay had been slightly earlier but it was settled with a goal worthy of winning any game, smashed in from 30 yards by César González, who plays his football here in Argentina for recently-relegated Gimnasia. He hit it so hard Ecuadorian goalkeeper Marcelo Elizaga didn't even have time to dive for it.

Venezuela ended the day overjoyed, then, but the defending champions were in a mixed mood after their late equaliser. Brazil manager Mano Menezes told the press conference that "it would have been very cruel if we'd left the pitch with a defeat", which was an interesting interpretation of a match in which Paraguay, although they had less of the ball and slightly fewer shots, looked almost visibly annoyed at not having got the win. Paraguay hadn't come from behind to beat Brazil since 1949, and that stretch was extended by Fred's 89th-minute goal.

If the Brazilian press might start losing patience with Menezes before long, then one man who's certainly not going to be popular in his homeland on Sunday morning in Daniel Alves. The Barcelona full back was directly at fault for Paraguay's second goal, and admitted as much. "I've asked my team-mates' forgiveness," he said.

He's not the only Barcelona player enduring a frustrating tournament so far, of course. Argentina's 0-0 draw with Colombia on Thursday was almost painful to watch for fans of the hosts, and Lionel Messi once again looked lost without team-mates who understood how to play with him properly (once again, he's the one who's had most of the blame for that here). Whilst Brazil will be looking to make changes in training in the coming days, Argentina have already started.

Manager Sergio Batista seems to have taken on board - albeit a little late - the clamour to provide more of a link between his midfield and attack, and will dump his 4-3-3, which may as well have been a 4-3-1, for all the interest Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi were showing in their roles. Esteban Cambiasso will drop to the bench and some tweaks will be made which are expected to see Argentina line up on Monday against Costa Rica in their must-win last group game in a 4-2-1-3.

Messi will be the '1' in that formation, behind a front three of Tevez, Ángel Di María and - at last - a player who resembles a target man, Gonzalo Higuaín. Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega will retain their places in the midfield. It's not quite what most would like to see, and I suspect plenty of others would drop Di María, push Messi further up and have Javier Pastore in that playmaker's role. All the same, it's a formation that should give the attack more focus, especially if Higuaín is told to stick somewhere near his starting, centre forward, position.

Whatever happens, it doesn't look like the surprises are over in this Copa. The entire draw, for starters, is worked out on the assumption - never an unreasonable one until this year - that Brazil and Argentina will top their groups. In such an event, they're invariably kept apart until the final. But this time round, although both sides still can, it's looking unlikely that both will. If Colombia beat Bolivia on Sunday, in fact, it will be impossible for Argentina to finish top of Group A. Even a draw for Colombia would leave Argentina needing a minimum two-goal win to top the group.

The fact that there's only one match on Sunday is another way in which the competition is nudged in favour of the hosts: Argentina will of course know what they need to do to finish in which position by the time they finish their group campaign against Costa Rica on Monday. Likewise, Brazil's match with Ecuador will be just after Paraguay and Venezuela finish up.

No-one's yet qualified, then, and no-one's been eliminated yet thanks to the fact that two of the three third-placed sides will progress. Venezuela, Colombia, Chile and Peru are all already on four points, and all will be hopeful of making the last eight. But for everyone involved, although the quarter-finals are six days away, the knockout stages effectively begin now.

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