By DAVID MOSSE
When Brazil won the last Copa America back in 2007, Lucas Moura was busy competing in the Under-15 Paulista State Championship. Four years later, the Sao Paulo winger is one of three supremely gifted youngsters being counted on to help Brazil capture another title, while restoring some luster to a soccer nation perceived by many around the globe to be in decline.
The five-time World Champions have undergone quite a makeover under new manager Mano Menezes, with Santos starlets Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar certain to feature alongside Alexandre Pato, who at 21 almost feels like the elder statesmen of the group. Robinho does add a touch of experience to the attack, but Brazil faces a tall order in attempting to retain its crown.
The success of Barcelona in recent years was bound to spawn some imitators, and Argentina boss Sergio Batista has made it clear his intention is to build a team that plays just like the Catalan giants. Lionel Messi has certainly looked more comfortable in recent friendlies than he ever did under Diego Maradona, while Ever Banega has the platform to emerge as a real star this summer.
Argentina does have problems at the back, especially in relation to Brazil, as Gabriel Milito and Nicolas Burdisso suffered through difficult seasons with their clubs, but upfront, such is the wealth of talent at Batista's disposal that Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain may begin the tournament on the bench. The home crowd will certainly provide an enormous boost for an Argentinian side determined to claim the country's first major trophy at senior level since 1993.
This Copa America also represents an opportunity for Uruguay to confirm its re-emergence on the world stage following a fourth-place finish in South Africa. Luis Suarez, fresh off a successful start to his Liverpool career, and Diego Forlan, looking to put a nightmarish campaign at Atletico Madrid behind him, will reprise the strike partnership that shone so brightly last summer.
Chile is eager to prove its recent improvement wasn't all due to the work of Marcelo Bielsa, who has given way to Claudio Borghi since the World Cup. Alexis Sanchez, currently linked with several top European clubs after a sensational season at Udinese, could be one of the stars of the tournament if Humberto Suazo and Matias Fernandez provide the necessary support up front.
Both Uruguay and Chile should benefit from Mexico's decision to field an under-strength squad that was further weakened by a prostitution scandal involving no less than eight players, including Jonathan Dos Santos. It's been an eventful summer for El Tri, which overcame the tainted chicken episode to capture the Gold Cup in style, but don't expect similar results in Argentina.
Paraguay manager Gerardo Martino has expressed concern about the age of his squad, but Martino is sticking with the same nucleus that reached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup, which means Paulo da Silva anchors the back-line. Jonathan Santana and Cristian Riveros will be key figures in the midfield, while Borussia Dortmund's Lucas Barrios is the best hope for goals.
The Falcao Garcia conundrum continues to plague Colombia with the explosive hitman unable to duplicate his Porto performances at the international level. Not surprisingly, Colombia has struggled to find the back of the net, which figures to be a problem for Peru as well, as strikers Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan are both set to miss the tournament due to injuries.
The rest of the teams are unlikely to make much noise, though Venezuela deserves credit for its steady progress in recent years. Youngsters Yohandry Orozco and Jose Salomon Rondon have graduated to the senior squad following impressive displays at the Under-20 level, and both will be fascinating to watch. An opening game against Brazil should serve as an interesting test.
Ecuador is having trouble replacing a golden generation that led the country to the second round of the 2006 World Cup, while Bolivia has deteriorated into the worst team in the region. Costa Rica rounds the field after Japan had to abandon the tournament due to the devastation caused by recent earthquakes back home as well as European clubs' refusal to release players.
The oldest competition in international soccer has sometimes struggled for relevance due to its awkward placement on the calender, but this summer's edition, set to take place from July 1-24 and promises to be one of the best ever, with so many of the world's top performers on hand. It remains to be seen which team will be left standing in Buenos Aires.
Here are five players to pay special attention to over the next month:
Paulo Henrique Ganso, Brazil
Neymar is attracting most of the attention these days, which isn't surprising considering Ganso has only played in about 15 games over the past year due to a series of injuries, but the elegant midfielder is actually much more important to Brazil's cause. Ganso, who could be headed to AC Milan after the tournament, will be the catalyst for what is expected to be a fluid, passing team.
Mano Menezes is clearly intent on moving Brazil away from the counter-attacking style so prevalent under Dunga, and Menezes was willing to wait until the very last moment to make sure Ganso would be fit. The 21-year-old Ganso showed why in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final against Penarol, returning from a six-week absence to produce a fine display in the 2-1 victory.
Ever Banega, Argentina
The comparisons to Xavi might place unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of Banega, but the Valencia midfielder does represent the best hope for avoiding the scenario that played out so many times at the last World Cup. With Lionel Messi being forced to drop back so deep to pick up the ball, it was not surprising the World Player of the Year failed to duplicate his Barcelona form.
Banega already played a key role, alongside fellow squad members Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi, in helping Argentina capture the Under-20 World Cup back in 2007, and he would love nothing more than to claim a senior trophy as well. After a difficult start to life in Spain, the 23-year-old Banega has enjoyed two strong seasons in a row and may very well be headed to Inter Milan.
Edinson Cavani, Uruguay
When manager Oscar Tabarez decided to employ Diego Forlan in a more withdrawn role at the last World Cup, it was seen as an indictment of Uruguay's midfield. But Tabarez was also determined to get Cavani on the field, and the lanky striker will be an even more important figure this summer following a sensational campaign for Napoli in which he scored 27 league goals.
Cavani just missed out on being Capocannoniere, as Antonio Di Natale finished with one more goal in Italy, but the 24-year-old could prove just as difficult to stop for South American defenders. Uruguay does lack some creativity in the center of the park, and Forlan might not be the same player, but with Luis Suarez and Cavani up front, the Celeste must be considered top contenders.
Alexis Sanchez, Chile
Sanchez probably expected his future to be decided by now, but the Chilean winger remains in limbo with Manchester City pulling out of the race for his services and Barcelona apparently unwilling to meet Udinese's asking price. The 22-year-old attacker would be an ideal signing for the Catalan giants and has an opportunity to boost his value by playing well early on in Argentina.
Chile doesn't employ quite the same pressing style under Borghi that Bielsa was known for, but this is still an attack-minded side with enough talent to prevent opposing defenses from focusing exclusively on Sanchez, who should have the freedom to roam around the attacking third. Look for Chile's biggest star to enjoy a strong tournament before finding a new home.
Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico
With his brother no longer around in light of the recent scandal surrounding the team, Giovani dos Santos must focus on the task at hand, which means continuing to rebuild his stock this summer in the hopes of landing a big-money transfer away from Harry Redknapp at Tottenham. Dos Santos capped off a solid Gold Cup with a brilliant performance in the final against the United States, including the goal of the tournament.
As the only player to compete in both competitions, and suddenly one of the more experienced members of the squad, the 22-year-old former Barcelona man will carry plenty of responsibility on his shoulders. Mexico has also landed in a tough group, featuring both Uruguay and Chile, so the only hope for an extended stay in Argentina is for Dos Santos to be at his most dazzling best.
COPA AMERICA GROUPS
Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia
Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela
Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico
Who do you see winning Copa America? Which teams do you think can surprise? Which players are you looking forward to seeing? Who do you see advancing from the group stage?
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