Colombia sparked their Copa America campaign with a deserved 2-0 victory over Argentina on Saturday night, leaving Lionel Messi with a sense of ‘here we go again’ as his team struggled to look anything like potential title-winners.
There is perhaps no surprise in the scoreline and Argentina are now in serious danger of another tournament to forget, while the victors can look forward to mounting a strong challenge.
Let’s focus on three key talking point to emerge from the action in Bahia…and Messi, of course, has to feature highly.
ARGENTINA IN CRISIS MODE ALREADY
Coming on just the second day of the competition, this clash was probably the highest-profile and eagerly anticipated clash of the entire group stage, pitting together two talented sides regarded among the title favourites behind hosts Brazil.
In the first half, though, they were a world apart, as Colombia looked far more convincing than a disjointed Argentina outfit who looked set for another disappointing campaign. Carlos Queiroz’s men were dynamic, fluid and confident on the ball, enjoying almost complete control in the centre of the field, while Argentina were flat and static, lacking fluency and struggling to close down their opponents.
The opening stages of the second half offered a turnaround as La Albiceleste finally succeeded in getting Messi on the ball, but that revival didn’t last for long as Colombia surged ahead with a wonderful curling strike from substitute Roger Martinez, before fellow sub Duvan Zapata wrapped it up in the final stages.
Argentina now cannot afford further slip-ups in their remaining group games against Paraguay and Qatar and the pressure is already being piled on coach Lionel Scaloni, with Argentina sports newspaper Diario Ole lamenting their start as ‘impossible to be worse’.
On this performance, it would be no surprise to see them bow out before the knockout stages.
MESSI’S NEVER-ENDING INTERNATIONAL NIGHTMARE
As ever, all eyes were on Messi as the Argentina skipper started yet another attempt to finally end his barren run at international level.
He lined up on the right of a three-pronged forward line, with his old buddy Sergio Aguero through the middle and Angel Di Maria on the left, but the first half was extremely worrying as the front three remained hopelessly isolated, receiving no service from an over-worked midfield which was simply treading water in the hope of containing Colombia.
The second half started much better, helped by the replacement of the woeful Di Maria with Rodrigo De Paul, as Messi finally got on the ball. One slick link-up with Aguero saw him embark upon a mazy dribble – including a cheeky nutmeg – which nearly led to a goalscoring chance, while a bad foul on Messi from Juan Cuadrado sparked an outbreak of handbags involving nearly every player.
But Messi then missed had Argentina’s best chance to score, sending a header wide on the rebound after Nicolas Otamendi’s initial effort was saved, and before long Colombia took the lead.
There was no way back from Argentina after that, and although he did not play particularly badly Messi’s missed header – and his subsequent inability to lead a comeback – will add more fuel to the fire for those who believe he cannot perform well for Argentina.
JAMES OUTSHONE BY SUPERSUBS
Along with Messi, another world-renowned attacking talent eager to enjoy a strong competition is James Rodriguez, who propelled himself into superstardom – and earned a money-spinning move to Real Madrid – with a brilliant World Cup for Colombia in 2014, but has rarely hit those heights since.
The playmaker was hot and cold throughout his three-year spell with Madrid, and proved similarly hit and miss during a two-year loan spell with Bayern Munich. The German giants have confirmed they do not intend to purchase him permanently, but James is also unwanted at Madrid so his future looks uncertain.
A strong tournament this summer would put him back in the shop window, and he made a decent enough start with some sharp attacking play and incisive deliveries into the box.
Colombia’s real stars, though, were a pair of substitutes: Martinez entered for the injured Luis Muriel after 15 minutes and nearly netted two minutes later, eventually rounding off a power-packed display with a superb whipped opener from the edge of the box.
Then Zapata, a late change for Radamel Falcao, continued an outstanding season (which yielded 23 goals in Serie A with Atalanta) by confidently making it 2-0 near the end. If they continue to perform and James also hits top form, Colombia could be serious contenders.
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At one end of the field, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez…a pair of tough and uncompromising central defenders who come with the additional benefit of playing nearly 200 club games together for Atletico Madrid.
At the other end, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani…two of the game’s most prolific strikers, whose silk and steel blend provides a perfect partnership capable of overcoming any defence.
Make no mistake: Uruguay are very, very dangerous as they head to Brazil for the latest edition of Copa America.
Brazil, of course, should be regarded as favourites to lift the trophy on home soil, as they aim to end their 12-year wait for a major trophy since last winning Copa America in 2007.
Even taking into account the absence of luckless iconic leader Neymar, who must be wondering if he will ever have the chance to complete a major international tournament without being dogged by injury, the hosts still look the strongest all-round team on paper.
But Brazil are far from infallible. On an individual level, Philippe Coutinho could be traumatised by a terrible season with Barcelona and consequent uncertainty over his future, Gabriel Jesus had no more than a moderate season with Manchester City and Roberto Firmino is lacking match sharpness after finishing Liverpool’s gruelling season hampered by injury.
Collectively, there are more question marks hanging over Tite’s squad: can they overcome the defensive frailty which destroyed last summer’s World Cup campaign against Belgium? Will the pressure of performing in front of feverish home crowds prove too much, as it did in 2014? And, of course, how will the team react to the loss of Neymar?
If the hosts do slip up, Uruguay – continental champions in 2011 and World Cup quarter-finalists a year ago – are probably best placed to take advantage.
They certainly appear to have the greatest depth in the goalscoring department, with Suarez and Cavani (102 international goals combined) backed up by rising star Maxi Gomez and gnarly veteran Cristhian Stuani, both of whom enjoyed excellent seasons with lowly teams in La Liga: Gomez scored 13 for Celta Vigo, while Stuani netted 19 for relegated Girona.
The organisational skills of Godin and tenacity of Gimenez in the centre of defence will ensure that Uruguay are as tough to break down as they were 12 months ago in Russia, when they advanced into the World Cup knockout rounds by keeping three consecutive clean sheets in the group stage.
The big difference from last season’s side, however, lies in a midfield which could be manned by two exciting young players who enjoyed breakthrough campaigns with major European teams: Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira and Fede Valverde of Real Madrid.
Torreira did feature in last summer’s World Cup, starting both knockout games against Portugal and France, but the experience he gained this season with Arsenal – starting 24 Premier League games – have made him into a more rounded and confident performance, ready to grab a more prominent role at international level.
Valverde, meanwhile, is a complete novice in tournament play, having been named in the provisional 26-man squad for Russia last summer but failing to make the final cut.
The 20 year-old was one of very few bright spots in a hugely disappointing campaign for Real Madrid, doing enough in his 16 league outings – despite most of them coming from the bench – to leap ahead of Marcos Llorente in the pecking order and earn the favour of Zinedine Zidane, who started Valverde in five of the team’s last eight games.
With Torreira’s defensive aptitude and Valverde’s tireless running and daring creativity, they could prove to be a perfect combination in midfield, adding a new dimension to a Uruguay team which has been solid but rather predictable over the last few years.
Veteran boss Oscar Tabarez may start with one or both on the bench, with Matias Vecino offering far more experience and another talented youngster, Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus, also available.
But Torreira and Valverde are the future, and if Tabarez dares to allow them to become the present it could add a new dimension to his team…and maybe even make them Copa America champions.
France coach Corinne Diacre insists the hosts remain outsiders to lift the Women’s World Cup after a narrow win over Norway in Nice.
Eugenie Le Sommer tucked away the deciding spot-kick to secure a 2-1 victory after referee Bibiana Steinhaus watched a replay of Ingrid Engen’s challenge on Marion Torrent before giving the penalty.
The incident certainly spared the blushes of France defender Wendie Renard, whose calamitous own goal had earlier gifted Norway an equaliser following Valerie Gauvin’s opening strike.
France now have two wins from two after beating South Korea 4-0 and are close to securing their place in the last 16.
But Diacre feels there is a way to go until they can be considered among the favourites.
“We knew this evening was going to be a different kind of game than the one we played last Friday,” she said at her post-match press conference.
“We knew we weren’t going to be winning 4-0 and wanted to show a lot of respect. We did what we had to do. We’re still outsiders for the tournament.
“We saw a difficult game and it’s all about the fine details. Little by little, along the way: that’s when you become the favourite.”
Norway can still make it through in second place if they can beat South Korea in Reims on Monday.
Coach Martin Sjogren was happy with their display against France and felt a draw would have been a fair outcome.
“We lost the match but I thought we were equal with the French,” he said.
“Of course, there are many feelings after the match. Sometimes you can handle these feelings and sometimes not.
“We knew that we were going to face a very good opponent and we had a good plan I think. We conducted the plan in a very good way.
“I wasn’t surprised by the French team – we knew they were going to be athletic with fast players and speed – but we played well and I’m very proud of how my players performed out there. In my book, I think we deserved a 1-1.”
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