Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Copa America 2011 Preview: Players to Watch

The Copa America gets underway this evening, and it promises to be one of the most exciting and least predictable editions of the tournament for many years.

Of course, the bold claim I’ve just made could well be proved spectacularly wrong by a succession of tedious, low-scoring draws and a relatively easy ultimate triumph for one of the ‘big two’, hosts Argentina or defending champions Brazil.

But somehow I don’t think so.

Both of South America’s heavyweights are in varying stages of transition as they build towards the 2014 World Cup, while the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay have all come on leaps and bounds. The talented but inconsistent Colombia could also cause a shock or two if it takes their fancy.

This depth of quality should make for an exciting tournament, and in this spirit I’ve selected six players from six of the main contending nations who I think are most capable of lighting up the competition. Have a read and let me know your views.
Argentina - Lionel Messi
The most obvious choice on this list. Messi, the best player in the world, is compulsive viewing every time he takes to a football field.

The diminutive playmaker’s phenomenal form over the past three seasons has earned him two consecutive Fifa Ballon d’Or awards and a place in the pantheon of the game’s all-time greats.

The only thing which comes anywhere close to resembling a blott on his magnificent copy-book of achievements is a relative lack of success at international level.

But at just 24, Messi has plenty of time to change that, and a Copa America on home soil could provide the perfect platform for him to finally deliver.
Colombia - Radamel Falcao
Falcao enters this tournament in the form of his life.

In the last two seasons the striker has netted an astonishing 75 times in 83 appearances for Porto, winning five trophies in two seasons with the Portuguese giants.

Falcao’s record at international level is somewhat less impressive, with a return of just seven goals from 28 games, but this is largely down to the failure of a succession of national team coaches to find a system which gets the best out of him.

Heavily linked with a move to join former boss Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea this summer, it also remains to be seen whether all the speculation over his future will adversely affect the 25-year-old’s performances on the pitch.

Nevertheless, if he gets a chance in the box, expect him to take it.
Brazil - Neymar
There is almost nothing to say about Neymar which hasn’t already been said. Hands down the hottest young prospect in world football, the 19-year-old attacker is already being coveted by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City.

What’s more, the Santos youngster’s talent fully justifies the level of hype which surrounds him. Neymar helped drive his team to victory this season in the South American Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, even scoring in the second leg of the final against Penarol.

He has also established himself as a key component of the exciting young Brazil side which Mano Menezes hopes to battle-harden with Copa America and Olympic experience in time for the 2014 World Cup, impressing European football fans with a match-winning display in a friendly victory over Scotland back in March.

There are still huge question marks over the cocky young man’s ego and temperament, but nothing a series of world-class performances over the next month won’t answer.

Whatever happens, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.
Paraguay - Lucas Barrios
Barrios built on an impressive showing at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa by firing Borussia Dortmund to their first league title since 2002 last season, and will be hoping to round off a fantastic campaign by at least helping Paraguay to the latter stages of the Copa.

The naturalised Argentine is a scoring machine, averaging over a goal a game at club level. His penalty area instincts do not seem to have dimmed on the international stage either, with five goals a handsome return from his first 12 appearances.

With his pace, skill and clever movement in the final third, Barrios is capable of troubling any defence in the tournament. Let’s hope he does.
Chile - Alexis Sanchez
Another name on the lips of Europe’s best and richest, Sanchez last season made the transition from exciting but unrefined youngster to top talent with world-class potential.

The 22-year-old contributed 12 goals from midfield to help Udinese finish 4th in Serie A and qualify for the Champions League for only the second time in their history.

Whether drifting inside from the right flank or starting in the free role behind the striker, Sanchez’s pace, skill and clinical finishing are dazzling, and clever movement between the opposition’s defensive lines often enables him to receive the ball in space in the final third.

Sanchez has all the ability to light up this year’s Copa. Only time will tell whether the protracted nature of his summer move to Barcelona will affect his focus, but both Chile fans and neutrals will be hoping it doesn’t.
Uruguay - Edinson Cavani
Cavani was an absolute revelation last season, netting an incredible 26 times in Serie A to fire Napoli into the Champions League for the first time since the tournament itself was called the European Cup and a certain Diego Maradona was plying his trade at the San Paolo.

Big, strong and lethal anywhere in sight of goal, ‘El Matador’ showed signs of his class at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa, although it was his strike partners who garnered most of the headlines – Forlan for his talismanic performances, and Suarez for that handball.

But now, having blossomed into one of the most feared frontmen in European football, Cavani is ready to take centre stage in this Uruguay team. And with Forlan providing the ammunition from deep and Suarez a willing runner, he’s likely to get plenty of service.