Chile aim to end 99 years of frustration at Copa America

Alam Khan 11/06/2015
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Home hero: Alexis.

As hosts, it was clear the burden of expectation weighed heavily on Brazil at last year’s World Cup. So much so that they enter the 44th edition of the Copa America with doubts over whether they have fully recovered from the 7-1 semi-final humiliation at the hands of Germany on home soil despite winning friendlies to repair a fragile confidence.

– COPA AMERICA: 10 young players to watch out for in Chile
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Now it is Chile who take centre stage with lofty ambitions and a nation urging them to create history.

In the inaugural tournament 99 years ago they finished fourth, and have been runners-up on four occasions. But they still seek that elusive first success.

A strong team ethic, spirit and the mercurial Alexis Sanchez up front offers hope, though, that this could be their moment.

“This group can win the Copa America,” said the Arsenal frontman. “The time has come to achieve big things.”

But Sanchez and Chile will have to back up their words with big performances as they will not be alone in their quest to be crowned kings of South America.

History could perhaps provide a pointer. On the past four occasions Chile has hosted the 12-team tournament, Argentina have been triumphant. And how Gerardo Martino’s men yearn for a repeat of wins in 1941, 1945, 1955 and 1991.

Widely regarded as the best team in the Americas, and with the best player in the world in the shape of Lionel Messi, Argentina’s ‘golden generation’ have failed to sparkle and vastly under-achieved. Having lost the final to Germany, their last World Cup title remains back in 1986, and their last Copa in 1993.

Gold in the 2008 Olympics cannot gloss over the senior side’s failure on football’s biggest stages, and so too Messi, who will lead the Albiceleste’s bid for a 15th Copa, matching the haul of defending champions Uruguay.

Brilliant for Barcelona, he has yet to achieve the same standards for Argentina and was jeered by fans four years ago when hosts Argentina lost on penalties to Uruguay in the quarter-finals.

To be lauded above Pele or his compatriot Diego Maradona as the greatest, Messi has to inspire his country to their first Copa in 22 years, when they overcame Mexico 2-1.

Few will argue they have the best squad and coach Martino admits: “This group of players cannot finish their cycle with the national team without winning a title.”

Brazil will, of course, have a point to prove and a potential meeting between the arch-rivals in the semi-finals could be significant.

Head coach Dunga has rung the changes to take them forward, giving chances to Al Ahli midfielder Everton Ribeiro and Robinho among others, but has yet to win over fans with an approach that focuses on not conceding goals than scoring them.

Hopes of a fifth Copa, out of the last seven, will rest on the slender shoulders of Neymar and all eyes will be on the 23-year-old to see if he can overshadow his club teammate Messi.

The other member of Barca’s fearsome frontline threesome, Luis Suarez, will be a notable absentee as he serves his international ban for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. That could leave Uruguay toothless in attack and others could also fall short in their challenge.

Colombia could threaten, especially with strikers Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez trying to impress potential suitors married to the wizardry of James Rodriguez.

With third-placed teams getting a shot at the quarter-finals, Mexico, despite being shorn of big names due to the Gold Cup, Ecuador, Paraguay and two-time winners Peru will look to upset more fancied opponents in a knockout tie.

Jamaica, whose captain and star man Rodolph Austin is without a club, should enjoy their invitation to the top table and the experience.

Coach Winfried Schaefer, who led Al Ahli to the UAE championship in 2006 and was a President’s Cup and Emirates Cup winner with Al Ain, will have his work cut out, though, to avoid them being embarrassed.

Bolivia were winners in 1963, but they and Venezuela will also be playing for pride.

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Will Argentina get the best Lionel Messi?

Rik Sharma 10/06/2015
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Lionel Messi has been heralded as the greatest player to have ever played the game.

It has been a long time since Argentina won a major competition. Lionel Messi was just six years old, a boy falling deeper and deeper in love with football, in his hometown of Rosario, Santa Fe. He watched on as two goals from striker Gabriel Batistuta helped the Albiceleste beat Mexico 2-1 to lift the 1993 Copa America.

Since then, dozens of stars have come and gone, achieving precisely nothing. Juan Sebatstian Veron, Hernon Crespo, Ariel Ortega. Roberto Ayala, Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Zanetti. Each player was brilliant in their own way, but unable to bring footballing success to a nation that demands it.

– COPA AMERICA: 10 young players to watch out for in Chile
– GALLERY: Top 20 most valuable footballers
– From Hazard to Ronaldo: UCL Team of the Tournament
– #360FIT: 20 top tips for keeping fit and healthy during Ramadan

Coincidentally, the final of this year’s Copa America is the precise 22-year anniversary of Argentina’s last triumph. And the country expects. Partly because it always does, but mainly because Argentina has the world’s best player – a player more brilliant than those to have come before him.

Argentina’s captain has been delightful this season, impressive enough to merit comparison with the Messi we saw under Pep Guardiola, during the coach’s three years in Catalonia. This version of Messi is the type of player who can win you tournaments by himself.

And yet, when he joins his team-mates in La Serena – late because of the Champions League final – he will also find the man who oversaw the worst season of his career. Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, who resigned from Barcelona one year ago, is Argentina’s manager.

So will we get this season’s barely-believable magician who whisked his side to La Liga success and two cup finals, or will Messi regress?

The 2013-14 season was the first time in a long time Messi has not looked otherworldly. He was human, fallible, second best. Second best to Atletico Madrid in the league, second best to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final and second best to Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d’Or. Second best in the world is not bad, but for Messi it fits uncomfortably.

Martino has made some blunt comments since leaving. He admitted he made “monumental mistakes” with the Catalan giants, and when asked what he was able to teach Messi during his year in charge, he replied: “Nothing. Nothing at all. Not to him or to Barcelona.”

The coach conceded he was a failure in Spain, viewing that year as a blip in a career which had been impressive. Martino won trophies in Paraguay and Argentina, including taking Messi’s youth club, Newell’s Old Boys, to the title. He is no fool. He was, however, a bit too lax.

There were many reasons for Messi’s slump and the lack of intensity in training was a big one. Martino was not into discipline. He was a soft hand, a friendly presence, after the strict fitness and dietary regime of Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova. Messi let his standards slip, seeming slower, more lethargic.

Barcelona advisor Carles Rexach claimed that Messi was eating too much pizza last year. He’s cleaned his act up though, visiting Italian nutritionist Giuliano Poser in the tiny town of Sacile. He has helped the player lose weight – Messi is noticeably slimmer – and even stop vomiting on the pitch as much, which had been a problem.

Between injuries, tax trouble and the impending World Cup, Messi struggled. Even in Brazil, he started brightly and then faded away once the group stage was over. But at the Maracana, after Germany had beaten Argentina 1-0 in the final, was where Messi started to rebuild himself.

The forward decided he needed to rest. So off he went, back to Rosario to spend time with family and a few close friends, then to Italy’s gorgeous Isle of Capri. Compared to the summer before, where he racked up miles over land and sea for commercial appearances, he was in a state of total relaxation.

While alleged personal problems with Barcelona coach Luis Enrique have been well documented, the Asturian’s brutal training sessions have knocked the whole team, Messi included, into excellent shape. He appeared in every single Barcelona league match of the season, starting them all bar one.

They say you learn more from failure than success, so perhaps a below-par year was the motivation Messi needed to get hold of himself and ascend again. Thiago helps. Messi’s two-year-old has helped him mature.

And it is hard to see him losing his way this summer. Messi still has a point to prove with Argentina. His country’s fans appreciate him, but they don’t adore him in the same way they do Diego Maradona. How could they? Messi has played out his entire club career in Spain. Maradona won his country the World Cup. The last time Argentina touched that was in 1986, before Messi was even born.

So the Barcelona forward will be going out of his way to lift a trophy in the shirt of his national team. And while there is pressure on his shoulders, it won’t be as suffocating as in Brazil.

There isn’t long for the competitive spirit from the season to drift from his body either. Argentina kick off their Copa America campaign against Paraguay this Saturday, just a week after the Champions League final.

Messi has been playing on the right of Barcelona’s attack since January, and that is where he is expected to line up for Argentina, with Angel di Maria on the left if fit, and either Sergio Aguero or Carlos Tevez in the middle. The former is the better player, but the latter is capable of playing the ‘Luis Suarez role’ to perfection. If Tata wants to get Enrique’s Messi, then that’s one way to go about it.

Former Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano summed up the situation in an interview with the Copa America website, saying:

“Messi only needs to feel well physically and have a ball at his feet to be the best in the world.” Tick. Tick.

Throw in his motivation to excel in an Argentina shirt, ending his country’s trophy drought, silencing the wagging tongues that claim he needs Xavi and Andres Iniesta by his side to succeed, and we can expect the very best version of Lionel Messi to appear in Chile this summer.

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VIDEO: Messi & Mascherano - It's been a spectacular year

andrewbinner 10/06/2015
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Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano arrived in La Serena, Chile to join the Argentina squad ahead of the Copa America.


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