Copa America: From Paraguay's 17-year-old prodigy to Barcelona's new right-back – the players to watch in Brazil

By Sports Desk June 11, 2021

At long last, after a 12-month delay and then so much uncertainty over the past few weeks, Copa America will start this weekend.

While the fact it is going ahead remains a bone of contention, with even Brazil players suggesting they are reluctantly playing it, Copa America is a tournament that rarely disappoints in terms of entertainment.

A bevvy of world-renowned stars such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will be hoping to make the difference.

There will also be some less-familiar faces hoping to either establish themselves or introduce their names to a wider audience.

Stats Perform has identified seven players worth keeping an eye on over the next month.

Rodrigo de Paul, 27, central midfielder - Argentina

Perhaps the odd one out here given his age, but De Paul is certainly one to keep tabs on. Having just enjoyed a wonderful individual campaign with Udinese, the creative midfielder is eager on a move and will surely be keen to impress.

He had a hand in 18 Serie A goals this term (nine goals, nine assists), while his xA value (expected assists) of 10.3 was the best in the division, the 1.3 differential suggesting De Paul was occasionally let down by poor finishing.

Further to that, he also attempted (191) and completed (122) more dribbles than anyone else, so Argentina will look to him to drive them forward from midfield.

Moises Caicedo, 19, central midfielder - Ecuador

Caicedo joined Brighton and Hove Albion in January to much fanfare from South American experts, who assured Seagulls fans they were getting a future superstar.

He's yet to make a senior appearance in England, with Graham Potter patient regarding his adaptation, but the Copa America could give fans a chance to see him in action.

A well-rounded, all-action midfielder, Caicedo was the teenager with the most goals (four), shots attempted (24), chances created (19), successful passes (748) and dribbles completed (23) in Ecuador's top flight in 2020, while his passing accuracy of 90.1 per cent was the highest among players to attempt 500 or more.

Emerson Royal, 22, right-back - Brazil

An impressive two-year spell at Real Betis has persuaded Barcelona to bring Emerson back to Camp Nou after a complicated three-way transfer in 2019.

He has proven himself to be both a dependable defender and a capable attacking outlet, his 10 assists over the past two seasons bettered by only one LaLiga defender (Jesus Navas, 13), while his 853 duels over the past two years is nearly 200 more than any other defender.

This paints a picture of an all-action defender who will work tirelessly up and down the right flank, and on the evidence of the past couple of years, it shouldn't take him too long to usurp Danilo as Brazil's primary option.

Yangel Herrera, 23, central midfielder - Venezuela

A long-term future for Herrera and parent club Manchester City looks unlikely, but he enjoyed a promising season with Granada in LaLiga – that coupled with a breakout tournament in Brazil could lead to promising suitors making their feelings known.

Herrera's a hard-working midfielder who made more tackle attempts (59) than any other Granada player this term, while it was a similar story with regards to duels (509) and duels won (261). Don't expect him to create much, but he's not shy about getting stuck in.

Jaminton Campaz, 21, left-winger - Colombia

Arguably the next big hope of the Colombian national team, Campaz only received his first call-up this month for the recent World Cup qualifiers. Although he did not get on the pitch, his inclusion in the squad was well-received among fans.

Colombia great Carlos Valderrama was among them as he urged the 21-year-old to grasp the opportunity in a post on his official Twitter account.

A livewire on the left flank, Colombia may look to his explosiveness and trickery should games remain tight in the latter stages.

Julio Enciso, 17, attacking midfielder - Paraguay

The youngest player at the 2021 Copa America, Enciso has already played 24 top-flight matches back home for Libertad and was briefly the youngest player to score in the Copa Libertadores this century with his goal against Jorge Wilstermann last year when still 16.

A good dribbler and not shy to take a shot, Enciso has been used almost everywhere across the front for Libertad and could be an interesting wildcard option for Paraguay.

Carlos Palacios, 20, right-winger - Chile

Earlier this year, Palacios made the jump to Brazil when he joined Internacional on loan from Union Espanola, where he had developed into one of Chile's most-promising young players as a lively winger.

While he's yet to score for his new club, he proved in Chile that he has a penchant for a spectacular goal one or two, while his regular appearances for Internacional have exposed him to a far greater standard of football.

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    Both seemed to be knock-ins, and yet neither has come to pass. Djokovic missed out on a calendar Grand Slam in New York before being banished from Australia, and despite drawing level with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 grand slams with his Centre Court triumph, he now finds himself two adrift of the Spaniard again.

    Barty, meanwhile, has left her own party. The then world number one stunned the tennis world by retiring in March, having added the Australian Open she so craved to her trophy cabinet.

    Djokovic and Iga Swiatek head into Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, as the top seeds.

    Stats Perform has used Opta facts to consider what the men's and women's singles might deliver.

    KING ROGER'S REIGN IS OVER, BUT DJOKOVIC AND NADAL KEEP GOING STRONG

    There will come a time when the Wimbledon favourite is not one of the 'Big Three'. That time is not now.

    Djokovic is the man most likely, as he targets his fourth straight Wimbledon title and seventh overall; since 2011, when he beat Nadal in the final, the Serbian has only been absent from the trophy match three times (in 2012, 2016 and 2017).

    His winning run of 21 matches at Wimbledon is the fifth-longest in the men's singles. Bjorn Borg holds the record (41 between 1976 and 1981).

    The last player other than Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray to win the Wimbledon men's title was Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. Federer is absent this year and may have played his last Wimbledon.

    Nadal has won Wimbledon twice, in 2008 and 2010. He won the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010, the only season of his career when he has won three slams. This year, at the age of 36, he has the Australian and French Open trophies already locked away, potentially halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, last achieved in men's singles in 1969 by Rod Laver.

    Should Nadal pull off another major coup, it would make him only the second man in the Open Era (from 1968) to win the season's first three singles slams, after Laver in 1969 and Djokovic last year.

    Can the rest hope to compete?

    What of Murray? Well, only Federer (19), Sampras (10), Laver and Jimmy Connors (both nine) have won more ATP titles on grass than the Scot in the Open Era. If he recovers from an abdominal strain, he has a shot at reaching the second week. He will of course have the full backing of the Wimbledon crowd.

    Last year's runner-up Matteo Berrettini is fancied more than Nadal by many, having won Stuttgart and Queen's Club titles in the build-up.

    There has not been an American men's singles champion since 2000, and although the United States has six players seeded, more than any other nation, it seems a safe enough assumption we will be saying a similar thing again in 12 months' time.

    Third seed Casper Ruud has never won a singles match at Wimbledon, while fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas has not had a win since reaching the fourth round in 2018. Daniil Medvedev, the world number one, cannot compete at The All England Club after their contentious decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

    IF SERENA CAN'T CHALLENGE SWIATEK, WHO CAN?

    From the jaws of retirement, Serena Williams is back. Silence from the 40-year-old about her intentions had become almost deafening, and yet here she is, back at Wimbledon on a wildcard, hoping to rekindle the old magic.

    Because she has pushed back against the doubters for over two decades now, you have to take this seriously. Her haul of 23 grand slams is one short of Margaret Court's all-time record and Williams would dearly love to at least match it.

    Three years ago, Williams became the oldest player to reach Wimbledon's women's singles final when she lost to Simona Halep. Six years ago, she was the oldest champion when she beat Angelique Kerber.

    Only four women in the draw this year besides Williams have been champion before: Petra Kvitova (in 2011 and 2014), Garbine Muguruza (in 2017), Kerber (in 2018) and Halep (in 2019).

    World number one Iga Swiatek starts as favourite. Junior Wimbledon champion four years ago, she has scooped two women's French Open titles since then and is on a 35-match winning streak.

    After triumphing at Roland Garros in early June, Swiatek will hope to become the first woman since Kerber in 2016 (Australian Open and US Open) to win two singles slams in the same season.

    The only competitive warm-up for Williams came in two doubles matches at Eastbourne, having not played since sustaining a hamstring injury at Wimbledon last year. The seven-time champion might consider it a challenge that there has never been an unseeded Wimbledon women's singles finalist during the Open Era.

    The women's top two seeds have not met in the final since Serena faced her sister Venus in the 2002 title match, so don't hold your breath for a Swiatek versus Anett Kontaveit showpiece on July 9.

    Could Gauff be best of the rest?

    Coco Gauff made a breakthrough with her run to the French Open final. Although she was blown away by Swiatek, for the 18-year-old American it was another mark of progress. Gauff reached the fourth round in Wimbledon in 2019 (lost to Halep) and 2021 (lost to Kerber).

    Fitness is likely to be the key factor in how US Open champion Emma Raducanu fares at her home grand slam, given her injury problems. Raducanu reached the fourth round on a wildcard last year and the 19-year-old will attempt to become the first British woman to reach that stage in back-to-back seasons since Jo Durie (1984, 1985).

    Ons Jabeur, meanwhile, should not be discounted. The world number three reached the quarter-finals at SW19 last year and heads to Wimbledon having won on grass at the Berlin Open, albeit Belinda Bencic had retired hurt in the final.

    The likes of Gauff, Raducanu and 21-year-old Swiatek will attempt to become the youngest woman to lift the trophy since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova triumphed in 2004.

    A first-round exit for Swiatek would leave the event wide open, but don't count on it. In the Open Era, only three times has the top-seeded woman lost in round one: Steffi Graf in 1994 and Martina Hingis in 1999 and 2001.

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    Denmark, the Euro 92 winners, gave hope to generations of teams that would follow them onto the big stage.

    How could a nation with a population of a little over five million in 1992 sweep away the competition, when that competition looked so formidable?

    Michel Platini's France squad boasted Papin, Cantona, Deschamps, Blanc and Boli; Germany had Klinsmann, Hassler, Moller and World Cup final match-winner Brehme; the Netherlands fielded Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard and a young Bergkamp.

    Nobody was tipping Denmark, who were called into the tournament 10 days before it began after the expulsion of Yugoslavia, a decision taken by UEFA amid war in the Balkans.

    Denmark have given hope to teams who logically should have none. This hope has often been outrageously misplaced. The notion that 'if Denmark can do it, so can we' is a fallacy. The Danes opened the door and fantasists walked through.

    The 1992 Denmark team were a band of brothers who seized their unexpected opportunity, facing on-field and off-field challenges along the way. Thirty years since the June 26 final, we celebrate them.

    HOW ON EARTH DID THEY DO IT?

    There was little indication of what was to come when Denmark followed a 0-0 draw against England by losing 1-0 to hosts Sweden; however, a 2-1 victory over France in Malmo snapped the watching continent to attention.

    Peter Schmeichel. John Jensen. Brian Laudrup. Kim Vilfort. Torben Piechnik. The football world knew about goalkeeper Schmeichel, a year into his Manchester United career, and Laudrup was Denmark's star outfielder. But many in their side were barely known outside Denmark. Twelve of their 20 still played in the Danish league.

    Michael Laudrup was in international exile, after he and Brian quit the national team in late 1990, unimpressed with new coach Richard Moller Nielsen. Brian came back shortly before the Euros, but Barcelona forward Michael continued to give international football a swerve. Denmark got by without him.

    "We were very fortunate that we were one group of people who felt like pioneers in Danish football," Schmeichel told UEFA.com. "We felt we had responsibility to break the waves and go against the tide and prove to everyone that we can compete."

    He said it was a "myth" that the Danes had been summoned from the beach, not least because the Danish season was still in full swing.

    It was "like a funeral" in the Denmark dressing room after the England stalemate, according to Schmeichel.

    "But from that moment on we felt we were definitely in a position where we can compete in this tournament," he said.

    SLAYING THE GIANTS

    In an eight-team tournament, scraping through in second place from Group 1 meant the Danes went straight into a semi-final.

    Getting the better of the Netherlands looked beyond Denmark, given the defending champions were so strong.

    Both teams knew Germany were waiting in the final, having got the better of Sweden 3-2 in the first semi-final. The Netherlands had beaten Germany in the group stage, but their hopes of a second clash with Berti Vogts' side were to be shattered in Gothenburg.

    Henrik Larsen's double either side of a Bergkamp strike almost gave the Danes victory in 90 minutes, but Frank Rijkaard grabbed a late leveller. When it came to penalties, Schmeichel's save from Marco van Basten made all the difference, every other player scoring from the spot as Kim Christofte sealed the shoot-out success.

    In an interview at the FIFA Best awards in 2022, Schmeichel recalled how he had found inspiration in the national team from a young age.

    "I have to go back to even 1984 when Denmark lost to Spain in the semi-finals of the Euros," Schmeichel said.

    "I was in the generation that came after that and [took] the inspiration from that, and the understanding that even though we are from a small country with a limited number of people playing football, if you work hard and look for your luck, and we always produce skilful players, then there is an opportunity to create very, very good results."

    Denmark were winning their battles on the pitch, but the most important struggle was being fought away from the spotlight, with Vilfort's young daughter Line battling leukaemia.

    He missed the France game to be with his family in Copenhagen but returned to Sweden before the semi-final. A movie dramatisation of Denmark's great triumph that summer portrayed Line telling her father he should go back and join his team-mates.

    Come the June 26 final against Germany, the Danes were not alone in thinking the improbable might just be possible.

    At the Ullevi stadium, Germany began strongly but were caught out in the 18th minute when Jensen sent a sizzling strike past Bodo Illgner.

    Schmeichel and his defence defied Germany, and in the 78th minute came a magical moment for Vilfort when he found space between Brehme and Thomas Helmer before sending a low left-footed shot in off the right post, sealing a 2-0 win.

    Schmeichel said Denmark's achievement came "from not accepting we're a small country".

    "If we get the right circumstances, we can go and do whatever job we want to do, so it's more a mentality thing," he said. "I think that, more than anything, was why we won the European Championship. It was magical and unexpected."

    Coach Moller Nielsen later reflected on his sudden change of plans for June 1992.

    Moller Nielsen, who died in 2014, was quoted by UEFA as saying: "I was supposed to fit a new kitchen [in my house] but then we were called away to play in Sweden. The kitchen is finished now. I got a professional decorator to do it."

    From a hospital bed, Line Vilfort got to see her father lead Denmark to the country's greatest footballing success.

    She died a few weeks later, at the age of seven. Dad was a national hero, but this would be the cruellest of final chapters in the story of these great Danes, a personal tragedy amid a summer-long national celebration.

  • Dortmund CEO Watzke criticises 'arrogant idiots' in English media after Mane transfer Dortmund CEO Watzke criticises 'arrogant idiots' in English media after Mane transfer

    Borussia Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke has hit out at "arrogant idiots" in the English media, while praising Bayern Munich in their signing of Sadio Mane.

    Bayern confirmed Mane's signing from Liverpool last Wednesday, with Watzke heralding the 30-year-old's transfer as one that improves the quality of the Bundesliga.

    With Karim Adeyemi and Adam Hlozek moving to Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen respectively, and with Ryan Gravenberch also set to sign for Bayern, the Bundesliga's top clubs have bolstered with talented youth.

    Meanwhile, German World Cup winner Mario Gotze will head for Eintracht Frankfurt ahead of their debut season in the Champions League.

    In an interview with Bild, the Dortmund CEO praised the Mane transfer and barked back on the competitiveness of English clubs in response to comments from Dean Saunders on Talksport, claiming Mane will waste his prime playing in "third gear" at a dominant Bayern.

    "Sadio Mane is a very good transfer, on which I expressly congratulate Bayern," Watzke said.

    "There are always some arrogant idiots like in this case. As a board member of Europe's club association ECA, I know that German football still has a good reputation.

    "The English didn't win any of the three European titles last season - even though I would have really given Jürgen Klopp a chance with Liverpool in the Champions League."

    Along with his role at BVB, Watzke is also the DFL's supervisory board chairman, overseeing the operation of Germany's professional domestic leagues.

    While expressing Dortmund's excitement on the return of fierce rival Schalke to the German top flight with Werder Bremen, he insisted it was important for the overall health of the Bundesliga along with high-profile transfers.

    "Not only are we looking forward to the Revierderby but the whole Bundesliga, because it is the mother of all derbies," Watzke said.

    "This is important because next year a lot of conditions will already be in place for the resale of the television rights in 2025, and if the Bundesliga booms this season, that will help us a lot with marketing.

    "The Bundesliga has to get stars like Mane and Gotze, but also create stars themselves again."

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