Lionel Messi admitted he is concerned about the coronavirus situation as the superstar captain targets a long-awaited title with Argentina at the Copa America.

Messi's Argentina will open their Copa America campaign against rivals Chile in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Monday.

Brazil is hosting the Copa after CONMEBOL controversially removed Argentina and Colombia as co-hosts due to respective political and COVID-19 issues.

Despite being one of the country's worst hit by the coronavirus health crisis, Brazil was awarded hosting duties for this year's showpiece event, which was already pushed back a year because of COVID-19.

Defending champions Brazil won 3-0 on Sunday against a Venezuela side that had reported 12 positive coronavirus tests amongst their ranks earlier in the week.

Speaking on the eve of Argentina's first match, Messi told reporters: "We are concerned about the situation because it is a risk for all of us to catch COVID-19.

"Although we try to take care of ourselves and do everything they tell us is not easy, because then these things happen and we face other national teams where there is a risk of contagion.

"We will try to do our best so that it does not happen to us, but this does not depend only on us and anything can happen."

Despite his remarkable Barcelona success, Messi is yet to win a senior trophy with Argentina following back-to-back runners-up performances at the Copa America 2015 and 2016, having also fallen short in the 2007 final against Brazil.

La Albiceleste and six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi also lost in the 2014 World Cup decider – beaten by Germany.

"I always said that I am available to try to be with the national team and give my best," the 33-year-old Messi said.

"My biggest dream is to achieve something with the Argentina, I was close many times and unfortunately it was not given to me, but I will try to keep looking for it until it is given to me.

"If the coach who is there thinks that I can continue contributing to the team, I will always want to be there and fight for that dream. I was lucky to win everything with my club and individually, and it would be very nice to win something with the national team."

Messi was directly involved in 50 goals (38 scored, 12 assisted) in 47 games for Barca in 2020-21. Only three players in Europe's top-five leagues managed more.

He has now recorded 25-plus goals in each his past 12 league seasons, while the veteran scored 11 LaLiga goals direct following a ball carry last season – the most of any player in Europe's top-five leagues.

Brazil head coach Tite lauded Neymar after the superstar inspired the Copa America champions to a 3-0 win against Venezuela in Sunday's curtain-raiser.

Neymar scored and was involved in the two other goals as Brazil kicked off their title defence in victorious fashion behind closed doors in Brasilia.

Marquinhos opened the scoring following Neymar's corner in the 23rd minute before the latter converted a penalty after the hour mark.

It was Neymar's 67th international goal – just 10 shy of Pele's all-time record. Since making his Brazil debut in August 2010, the Paris Saint-Germain forward has scored 48 more goals than any of his Selecao team-mates.

Neymar then provided the cross for substitute Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa to complete the scoring in the final minute of regulation as Tite refused to make comparisons with Brazil greats Ronaldo and Romario.

"When Neymar is well physically and well in his head, good things happen," Tite told reporters after the 29-year-old created seven chances against Venezuela – the most by any Brazil player in the Copa America since his international bow.

"When you have a player with the technical quality that he has, you gain in assist ability, with the left foot or with the right foot, and he becomes an unpredictable player.

"When you stop him in a more advanced position on the field of play it is better for him, because the opponents are afraid of making him an infraction in a dangerous place on the field, so we structure the team so that he receives fewer balls, but to do it in a more efficient way for the creation of the game.

"It would be an injustice to compare players from different eras, because the players of my generation were extraordinary, Neymar is also extraordinary, and a while ago Ronaldo and Romario were also extraordinary.

"There are different stages and moments, so you have to be very careful not to compare them."

Colombia exacted revenge after opening their 2021 Copa America campaign with a 1-0 win over Ecuador on Sunday.

Ecuador had remarkably routed Colombia 6-1 in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in November but there was no repeat of that result in Cuiaba.

In a move straight from the training pitch, Edwin Cardona capped a stunning set-piece move with a 42nd-minute volley – awarded after initially being ruled offside – to give Colombia the perfect start in Group B after defending champions and hosts Brazil eased past Venezuela in the curtain-raiser.

It was an uninspiring first half at Arena Pantanal, where both teams struggled to create anything in the final third of the pitch.

Ecuador did not record a shot on target in the opening half, though David Ospina was forced to get down low to the feet of Enner Valencia to thwart the former West Ham and Everton forward in the sixth minute.

Just as the half was petering out, Reinaldo Rueda's Colombia struck prior to the interval, thanks to help from VAR.

Some lovely one-touch passing following a set-piece released Cardona, who volleyed into the net, but the flag was quicky raised for offside.

However, the decision was overturned and Colombia were awarded the goal after a VAR review – Miguel Borja was found to be in an onside position when he headed the ball down to Cardona.

Colombia goalkeeper Ospina made his first real significant save of the match eight minutes into the second half, turning the ball away for a corner as Ecuador finally recorded a shot on target.

Ecuador continued to push numbers forward, but they never really troubled Colombia or Ospina.

 

What does it mean? Colombia continue Copa dominance

Colombia have now beaten Ecuador in their past eight meetings at the Copa America, keeping clean sheets in six of them and restricting Ecuador to only two goals across those matches. La Tricolor are also unbeaten in normal time in their past six games at the Copa, keeping clean sheets in each of them (W5 D1).

Borja in career first

After teeing up Cardona brilliantly, Borja has now been involved in Colombia goals in back-to-back games for the first time in his career, having also scored the equaliser against Argentina in World Cup qualifying.

Ecuador's wait goes on

Ecuador have not beaten a CONMEBOL opponent at the tournament since 2001, their 4-0 defeat of Venezuela followed by a 13-game winless run in such matches. Ecuador's only wins in the intervening period have been against CONCACAF pair Mexico and Haiti. Ecuador are also in the midst of a three-match losing streak in all competitions.

What's next?

Colombia will face Venezuela in Goiania on Thursday, while Ecuador's next fixture is also against La Vinotinto but in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

Before Brazil's Copa America opener against Venezuela, there was a moment of silence to recognise the victims of the pandemic and those leading the fight against COVID-19.

It was a poignant scene. Somehow, it was made more powerful by the fact it was staged in front of thousands of empty seats at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, the fans kept away from matches at a tournament held in part as a distraction from the global health crisis.

Yet the Selecao's simple victory, secured through goals by Marquinhos, Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa, only compounded the uncomfortable feeling that, perhaps, this tournament shouldn't be taking place at all.

CONMEBOL's decision to remove the event from co-hosts Colombia and Argentina over concerns around civil unrest and coronavirus cases, and relocate it to a country struggling with both, was questionable to say the least. The Brazil squad certainly thought so, reluctantly taking part only after making it clear they were deeply unhappy with South American football's governing body. Head coach Tite decried it as a "politicised" decision.

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, protests erupted across the country against the handling of the pandemic by president Jair Bolsonaro, who has been criticised for playing down the severity of a virus that has killed more than 460,000 of his citizens. Then, just when Brazil had agreed to play, Sunday's opponents were struck by a surge of positive test results, wrecking their preparations for a match where few gave them a chance anyway.

So it was that the Brazil and Venezuela players stood arm in arm in the centre circle on Sunday, in silent tribute before those empty red seats, faceless reminders of the awful toll COVID-19 has taken. It felt like this was why these teams had gathered here, that the football match to follow was an afterthought.

There were still things to admire about the subsequent 90 minutes. A depleted Venezuela performed admirably to keep Brazil at arm's length for 23 minutes and rode their luck when Richarlison's touch let him down and Gabriel Jesus steered a header wide. It took a set-piece for Tite's mean to break through, Marquinhos bundling the ball in from Neymar's delivery.

Joel Graterol in the Vinotinto goal had kept the scoreline down but was beaten again just past the hour mark, Neymar side-stepping and stuttering his way to the penalty spot before slotting home international goal number 67 after a foul on Danilo. Brazil's number 10 would have had two more sublime solo goals had his shooting been a little more accurate; instead, he put a pinpoint cross into Gabriel's chest for 3-0 after another drive into the box.

The players celebrated their goals with gusto but, after the full-time whistle echoed around the arena, there were few cheers or beaming smiles. This was job done, formalities over, onto the next one. They retreated back down the tunnel. The eerie silence lingered.

Neymar was on target as Brazil opened their Copa America defence with a 3-0 win over Venezuela at Estadio Nacional on Sunday. 

Hosting the tournament after it had been moved from Colombia and Argentina amid political unrest in the former and a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the latter, Brazil were never troubled by a Venezuela side that had reported 12 positive coronavirus tests amongst their ranks earlier this week. 

Marquinhos got them on their way midway through the first half with his third international goal before Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Neymar doubled their advantage from the penalty spot in the 64th minute.

Brazil – who finished with 18 shots to Venezuela's three – added a third late on when substitute Gabriel Barbosa turned home a Neymar cross from close range.

Brazil started on the front foot and twice went close early on, Joel Graterol keeping out Richarlison and Eder Militao heading wide from a teasing Renan Lodi cross.

They were rewarded for their bright start in the 23rd minute when Marquinhos flicked home from close range after Neymar's corner had fallen kindly to him. 

Richarlison saw an effort ruled out for offside soon after, while Neymar dragged wide from a promising position as Brazil failed to extend their advantage before the interval.

Neymar was unable to steer home a Gabriel Jesus cross at the start of the second period, but he stroked home from the spot shortly after the hour mark after Danilo had been clipped in the area by Yohan Cumana. 

Late on Neymar turned provider for Brazil’s third in the 89th minute, rounding Graterol and crossing for Barbosa to chest home from almost on the line. 

What does it mean? Familiar home comforts for Tite's men

Brazil will face significantly tougher tests than the one posed by a depleted Venezuela side, but Tite will be pleased to see his side get off the mark with the minimum of fuss. 

The Selecao have now gone 21 Copa America games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W13 D8), while they have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted the tournament. Their rivals have been warned. 

Neymar sparkles for Brazil

The PSG forward was at his talismanic best, taking five shots and making a game-high seven key passes. He also competed in a whopping 17 duels – the most of any player on the pitch – and drew the most fouls (four) of any player.

Jesus struggles to make an impact

Jesus had just a solitary shot and failed to play a single key pass to a team-mate in what was an underwhelming display. Roberto Firmino might just fancy his chances of replacing him for Brazil's next game after this showing from the Manchester City man. 

What's next?

Both sides are in action again on Thursday, with Brazil facing Peru in Rio de Janeiro and Venezuela taking on Colombia in Goiania.

Lionel Messi begins his latest quest for international glory on Monday when Argentina start their Copa America campaign against Chile.

Twice a losing finalist in 2015 and 2016 - each time to Chile - the Albiceleste came third at the tournament two years ago after losing in the semi-finals to Brazil.

While they did at least defeat La Roja in that bronze-medal match, those two penalty shoot-out losses were tough to swallow for Messi, who has been unable to match his remarkable club success for his country.

Only Uruguay (15) have won this tournament more often than Argentina (14), but their last title came in 1993 and they have lost four consecutive finals, having also been beaten in 2004 and 2007.

Argentina hold the records for both most goals scored (462) and most appearances (195) in the history of the Copa America and can at least feel buoyed by the fact they have not lost a match since that 2-0 defeat to Brazil in the last four in 2019.

They drew with Chile and Colombia in their most recent matches in World Cup qualifying, each time after taking the lead, but there appears to be a growing belief within the squad around coach Lionel Scaloni's ideas.

"The truth is the team is really well, the group is really well. We're getting to know each other more and consolidating the coaching staff's idea," Giovani Lo Celso said this week, as per Ole.

"As we know, all South American teams and matches are very difficult. It's all very balanced, very competitive and we know there are no easy games. It's going to be a very difficult group."

Chile's preparations were blighted by a foot injury suffered by Alexis Sanchez, with the Inter forward not now expected to be fit until the knockout phase.

They have only won three matches since the previous tournament and have only played three games this year under coach Martin Lasarte, who took charge in February.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

Still the go-to star for Argentina 16 years after his debut, this year's Copa America and the 2022 World Cup look like being Messi's final chances for international glory.

He might be turning 34 this month, but his powers remain imperious: he was directly involved in 50 goals (38 scored, 12 assisted) in 47 games for Barcelona in 2020-21. Only three players in Europe's top-five leagues managed more.

Chile – Carlos Palacios

An unknown at senior tournament level, Carlos Palacios will be familiar to some crowds in Brazil, having joined Internacional on loan from Union Espanola this year.

Still awaiting a first start for his country, the 20-year-old could well be called upon in the absence of Sanchez as Chile bid to come through Group B games with Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Argentina are unbeaten in their 28 Copa America clashes with Chile. Their 28 games are the most against a single opponent without defeat in their Copa America history.
- Chile's two Copa America titles came in consecutive editions – claiming glory in both the 2015 and 2016 tournaments.
- Argentina have beaten every single opponent in this year's Copa America more times than they have lost to them in tournament history.
- Chile made it at least to the quarter-finals in seven of the past eight editions.

It has been a long time since Paraguay last conquered South American football, and they start their 2021 Copa America campaign looking to arrest a slump against Bolivia.

Paraguay are two-time winners of the Copa America, though not since 1979 have La Albirroja hoisted the trophy aloft.

Since then, their best performance has been reaching the 2011 final, which they lost against Uruguay. Paraguay did make it to the 2019 quarter-final, where they were eliminated by eventual champions Brazil on penalties.

There are familiar faces in the squad – captain Gustavo Gomez, Newcastle United's Miguel Almiron and Angel Romero.

Juan Carlos Osorio oversaw Paraguay's run to the last eight two years ago, but former Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao boss Eduardo Berizzo is now at the helm as the country dreams big.

But Berizzo finds himself under pressure amid a four-game winless streak following their 2-0 defeat to Brazil in World Cup qualifying prior to the Copa America – the nation's first loss at home to the Selecao since 1985.

"The Copa America will serve to consolidate the concept and the idea," Paraguayan Football Association (APF) vice-president Javier Diaz de Vivar told Radio Monumental 1080 AM following the Brazil loss. "We see a growing Paraguay, we need to be more forceful and perhaps be a little more vertical, but we are doing well, working, we chat every day with Eduardo Berizzo."

Bolivia will be hoping the delayed Copa will help the team – the 1963 champions have not progressed from the group stage since 2015.

An additional advantage could be that most of Bolivia's squad play in the domestic league, which has been suspended due to the COVID-19 situation.

With more time to prepare together, Marcelo Martins and Bolivia – who took part in the 2015 quarter-finals, their first knockout-round appearance since finishing runners-up in 1997 – are looking beyond the group phase.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Paraguay – Julio Enciso

The youngest player at the Copa America, Enciso has already played 24 top-flight matches 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.

Bolivia – Marcelo Martins

The heart and soul of a nation? Look no further than Martins. The iconic forward stands alone as Bolivia's record holder for goals (25 in 83 appearances). Of those, 18 have come in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, also making Martins Bolivia's top scorer in that competition. Playing his football for Cruzeiro in Brazil, Martins scored three goals in the two qualifiers immediately prior to the Copa America, helping his side to earn four points. Martins scored in the previous meeting between Paraguay and Bolivia – a 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw in November.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Paraguay are winless in their last 11 games in Copa America (D6 L5), their longest winless run in the competition.

- Bolivia scored in each of their last two games in Copa America: Marcelo Martins and Leonel Justiniano found the net in their defeats against Peru and Venezuela respectively in 2019.

- This is the sixth consecutive Copa America with Paraguay managed by a Argentinian boss, with Gerardo Martino (2007 and 2011), Ramon Díaz (2015 and 2016) and Eduardo Berizzo (2019 and 2021) each taking charge for multiple tournaments.

- Bolivia boss Cesar Farías will manage his second Copa America. In his previous edition, he oversaw an historic fourth-place finish for Venezuela in 2011.

Brazil head coach Tite revealed the team asked for the Copa America not to be staged on home soil amid ongoing controversy regarding the showpiece South American tournament.

Defending champions Brazil will host coronavirus-hit Venezuela in the opening game of the Copa America on Sunday following initial concerns the Selecao would boycott the event.

Postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Copa America had been due to be shared between Colombia and Argentina, though both countries were removed as co-hosts following respective political and coronavirus issues.

Brazil was awarded hosting rights, despite being one of the countries worst hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

Captain Casemiro and the squad have already criticised CONMEBOL's decision to move the tournament to Brazil and those views have been amplified following news that 12 of Venezuela's travelling party tested positive for coronavirus.

With COVID-19 again casting a shadow over the Copa, Tite told reporters on the eve of the curtain-raiser: "I would like these problems not occurring, not only for Venezuela. The organisation is wrong and this is not political, but it is a direct criticism to CONMEBOL and whoever has defined this in the CBF [Brazilian Football Confederation] that the Copa America will be here, I did not ask for this.

"I do not have any political party and I did not have it throughout my career, I always voted for people and never for political parties. Not having political ideas, they politicised this situation, unfortunately. We chose to participate in the Copa America and be loyal, and the players and the coaching staff asked the president of the CBF before the Copa America was defined in Brazil. Before the president of the republic speaks, we told them that we would be loyal, out of respect for everything that is happening and on the one hand sentimental.

"We asked for some time before speaking publicly and the decision was already defined, this is the real thing and what I want to tell you. From that moment on we decided to express ourselves in a joint way and once it was defined we feel pride in our country, pride in representing the Brazilian national team and I am proud to be their coach, we are proud to be here. Please understand that it is not only black or white, there are also greys, there is the Brazilian national team and there is our discernment to choose to express our opinions outside of here.

"So, from the moment our opinions were contrary to the organisation of the Copa America and now we have to play, there are no excuses and we are going to play. We will take care of ourselves in the best possible way and we will adjust to our responsibilities."

Brazil have gone 20 Copa America games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W12 D8). Their previous defeat was a 3-1 loss to Peru in 1975.

Indeed the Selecao have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted, with an overall record of W26 D12 L2 – the other reverse coming versus Paraguay back in 1949.

As Brazil eye back-to-back Copa America trophies, Mineiro has been to the summit before.

Mineiro was part of the Selecao side that won the 2007 Copa America, defeating Argentina 3-0 to retain their CONMEBOL crown.

Brazil – led by Dunga – were far from favourites 14 years ago in Venezuela, where Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano were among the absentees.

But a team featuring Robinho, Julio Baptista and Dani Alves upstaged great rivals Argentina, who were boasting Lionel Messi, Javier Zanetti, Carlos Tevez, Juan Roman Riquelme, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Mascherano in Maracaibo.

"On that occasion we basically went to the competition with our reserve team," Mineiro – who started every match and went on to earn a move to Hertha Berlin following the Copa America success, before joining Chelsea – told Stats Perform. "As several of the main players could not take part in that edition of the tournament.

"At the beginning, people did not expect much from us, the media was in doubt about our potential. But we managed to grow as a team little by little and we showed our potential. The biggest challenge came in the final match. And we won the Copa America and brought another trophy to Brazil."

"We are a country of over 200 million inhabitants. And it is a big responsibility to wear the yellow shirt," said 24-time international Mineiro. "The pressure is very big. However, it is also an honour, a privilege and a dream come true for every youngster, for every professional player to be able to wear that shirt and represent the country.

"We knew it. We were aware of our limitations. We knew it would be a tough Copa America for us. But we were totally focused and united and that was crucial for us. As I said, we went step by step gaining confidence. We got stronger and found ourselves in the final and managed to win it. For every professional footballer it is an honour to wear Selecao's shirt. Regardless of the pressure you must deal with."

The pressure is on Tite's Brazil to keep their hands on the Copa America trophy this year, as they prepare to open the showpiece South American tournament against Venezuela on Sunday.

Brazil have won five of the last nine editions of the Copa America, including the most recent one in 2019, while the Selecao have a favourable record against seven of the nine other teams at this year's event.

Pressure is nothing new in a country, where football transcends everything else. It is a way of life. It is a special kind of pressure in a country of 200million people, when every boy grows up wanting to play for the Selecao.

Amid the huge weight of expectations, Mineiro said: "Brazil is a country where emotions normally speak higher than reasoning. It is a fact. The here and now normally defines your status, how good you are. In Brazil there is not much patience to wait for a job to be developed. This is the Brazilian style, it is cultural to want immediate results.

"As we are considered...well, at least this is my impression where I go, we are considered one of the best - if not the best - football country in the world. But we must change that mentality and learn to work in different scenarios. With or without pressure. When we wear the Selecao shirt, every fan and the media expect us to win the game and play beautiful football and reach great results."

Brazil will also face Peru – a rematch of the 2019 decider, Colombia and Ecuador in Group B of this year's Copa America.

"Whenever you go onto the pitch, no matter if that is for the national team or for your club, you always think of winning the game," the 45-year-old continued. "But the pressure is obviously higher at Selecao. And when you represent your country, the desire is always to fight and do a great job.

"But it is hard as the opponents are always motivated to get a positive result against Brazil. It has been like that for a long time. Brazil have difficulties to beat some sides, perhaps because of their big motivation when they face Brazil. Anyway, every player will always try to represent the Selecao in the best possible way."

All eyes will be on superstar Neymar, who is carrying the hopes of a football-mad nation.

Neymar has scored 66 goals for Brazil, second only to Pele (77). Since his Brazil debut in August 2010, the Paris Saint-Germain forward has scored 47 more goals than any team-mate (Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho, 18).

In 2020-21, Neymar completed 5.6 dribbles per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 – the best mark of any player in Europe's top-five leagues to play at least 1000 minutes. Since joining PSG in 2017, he ranks third in France's top flight for goals (56) and fourth for assists (31), despite ranking 177th for appearances (70).

For all of Neymar's brilliance, Mineiro believes Brazil must learn not rely on the former Barcelona superstar.

"Neymar is a great player. His quality and potential are undeniable. On several occasions Brazil depend on his performance to show great football. In my opinion, Brazil should have a plan B just in case Neymar is absent for some reason," added Mineiro.

"Brazil must learn to play as a team and make the most of the individual quality of every player. That way we would become a stronger, more competitive side. Then we would surprise other teams who will be prepared to cancel our main players."

Neymar and Everton's Richarlison have formed an impressive relationship in attack for Brazil, though Mineiro has his collective concerns for the South American powerhouse.

"I have been following Richarlison. He is an excellent player with a big potential," said Mineiro. "He is growing and is an important player for Selecao. There is something I am a bit worried about Selecao. We have good players but they do not play together frequently or have enough time to train together as the European national teams do.

"Germany, for instance, a team that I am able to follow closely, they do have more chances to be together either training or playing matches. More than Brazil. They know each other well and have more opportunities to be together either in their clubs or in competitions. That is an advantage for the European national teams. Therefore, as many training sessions or games we can have with our good players can only be good for Selecao."

Ecuador will be keen for a repeat of their sensational World Cup qualifying win over Colombia as they look to finally beat a South American rival at the Copa America.

La Tri remarkably won 6-1 in Quito in November, the last of three consecutive victories in an encouraging start to Qatar 2022 qualifying following an opening defeat to Argentina.

Led by Gustavo Alfaro, appointed three months prior to that match, Ecuador have waited a long time for a comparable result at the Copa America.

They have not beaten a CONMEBOL opponent at the tournament since 2001, their 4-0 defeat of Venezuela followed by a 13-game winless run in such matches.

Ecuador's only wins in the intervening period were against CONCACAF pair Mexico and Haiti.

The qualifying setback was particularly shocking for Colombia given their strong record against Ecuador, who they have beaten nine times at the Copa America – including the past seven meetings in a row.

La Tri's most recent Copa victory over Colombia was a 4-3 triumph in 1964.

Alfaro said: "We know the team that we are going to face – a team that have recovered their self esteem, their form, their intensity and have become one of the best.

"As they have been in the last two World Cups, they are one of the best in South America. We are in a process of wanting to occupy that place."
 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Colombia – Luis Muriel

Atalanta forward Muriel scored a club goal every 80 minutes this season, the fifth-best rate of any player in Europe's top five leagues with five or more. He finished with 26 goals and 10 assists in all competitions. Muriel will now be determined to make his mark at the Copa America, too, having appeared in only 19 minutes across two previous editions. He was injured 14 minutes into the 2019 opener.

Ecuador – Angel Mena

Colombia will be well aware of the threat of Mena, who scored one and created two more as he was involved in half of Ecuador's six goals in Quito. With a knack for taking up dangerous attacking positions, Mena scored 17 goals for Leon in Liga MX in 2020-21 but could have boosted that tally further still with his chances worth 19.2 expected goals.
 

KEY OPTA FACTS

– Colombia have beaten Ecuador in their past seven meetings at the Copa America, keeping clean sheets in five of them. Ecuador scored only two goals across these matches.
– Colombia are unbeaten in normal time in their past five games at the Copa America, keeping clean sheets in each of them (W4 D1). In the previous tournament, they were eliminated without losing a game. Chile beat Colombia in a penalty shoot-out following a goalless draw.
– Colombia have made it through the group stage in 11 of the past 12 editions, although their sole title came at home in 2001.
– This is the second time Reinaldo Rueda has coached Colombia at the tournament. Previously, they finished fourth in Peru in 2004 (W3 D1 L2). Alfaro is coaching a side at the Copa America for the first time.
– The 2016 tournament was the only one of the past eight editions in which Ecuador advanced beyond the group stage.

Coronavirus again cast a shadow over the 2021 Copa America as Venezuela's preparations for their opening match versus Brazil were thrown into chaos.

The tournament has been moved from Colombia and Argentina to Brazil amid political unrest in the former nation and a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the latter.

Brazil has also suffered horribly during the pandemic, although calls to postpone the tournament have been resisted despite some players from the host nation voicing their opposition.

Now Venezuela's attempts to snap a run of eight winless Copa America encounters with the Selecao – who have won six in that streak - look set to be compromised after news that 12 of their travelling party have tested positive for coronavirus.

"The health department was notified by CONMEBOL that 12 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation, including players and coaching staff, tested positive for COVID-19," the secretary of state for Brasilia said in a statement, with the match set to take place at Estadio Nacional in the Brazilian capital.

 "They are all asymptomatic, isolated in single rooms and are being monitored."

The lack of any public statement on the matter from either CONMEBOL or the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF), means it is unclear how many of the 12 are players.

The Athletic reported at least five players, including captain Tomas Rincon had tested positive, with local reports in Venezuela suggesting a flight for 14 replacement players had been chartered.

Teams named provisional squads of up to 60 for the tournament to mitigate against the potential effects of COVID-19 outbreaks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Roberto Firmino

Firmino might have endured a mixed season as Liverpool ceded their Premier League crown, but Brazil boss Tite will be hopeful the forward rises to the occasion as he did on the way to glory in 2019. Firmino's five goal involvements (two goals, three assists) were more than any other player in the competition.

 

Venezuela – Yangel Herrera

In Rincon's expected absence, plenty of onus will fall upon Herrera's performance in Venezuela's engine room – assuming, of course, that he is available himself. Contracted to Manchester City, Herrera is one of the Premier League champions' loan army, having spent each of the past three seasons with New York City, Huesca and Granada respectively.

In LaLiga last term, he averaged 2.3 tackles and 10.2 duels won per 90 minutes for Granada – the latter statistic placing him second in the division among midfielders to have played 20 or more games.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil have gone 20 Copa America’s games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W12 D8). Their previous defeat was a 3-1 loss to Peru in 1975.
- Indeed the Selecao have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted, with an overall record of W26 D12 L2 – the other reverse coming versus Paraguay back in 1949.
- Venezuela's quarter-final exit against Argentina in the 2019 Copa America ended a three-match unbeaten run in the competition (W1 D2).
- This will be Venezuela's 20th Copa América appearance, the fewest of any CONMEBOL nation.

There are aspects to the Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez of 2021 that make them wonderfully reflective of the Uruguay national team.

Impassioned? Yes. Belligerent? Certainly. A footballing pedigree to rival the best in the world? Absolutely.

What about quality? After all those years, are they still match-winners, entertainers, undimmed by the passing of time? Of course they are. Just ask Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.

Last August, Suarez was informed by new Barca coach Ronald Koeman that he would not be in his plans at Camp Nou. Too old to be relied upon, too expensive to bench seemed to be the feeling. Regardless, the Catalans reportedly had a list of teams to whom they would not sell Suarez for fear of the deal coming back to haunt them, a list that, apparently, inexplicably, did not include Atletico Madrid. He duly went to the capital on a two-year deal.

Likewise, Cavani seemed to be offloaded all too readily by PSG, who had just lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich and appeared eager to freshen things up without their record goalscorer. Manchester United were, eventually, the team to gamble on the striker, who joined on a one-year deal with an option for another in October, by which time the Red Devils had failed to sign top target Jadon Sancho and been linked with several other alternatives.

Both players, then, had a point to prove. Boy, did they prove it.

 

Suarez scored twice and set up another on his LaLiga debut for Atleti in a 6-1 win over Granada in September. He then scored three times for Uruguay in the October international break, and again in the 3-0 win at Colombia in November.

From December 19 to February 8, Suarez scored 11 goals in nine league games, including three braces in a run of four matches. He would end the season with winners against Osasuna and Real Valladolid, his 21 goals overall securing 21 points for Atleti throughout the campaign, the most of any player in the competition. And, of course, he won the title, for the fifth time in seven seasons.

Not that such a contribution should really have been in doubt. While he may no longer be quite the all-round dynamo of his Liverpool and early Barca days, his ruthlessness in the opposition box has scarcely diminished; since 2011-12, only Lionel Messi (492) and Cristiano Ronaldo (411) have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top five leagues than Suarez (325).

 

Unlike his international team-mate, Cavani ended the club season empty-handed, despite scoring United's goal in the Europa League final with Villarreal, which they lost on penalties. Still, few could argue Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's decision to sign him was a mistake.

Cavani did not play a full league game until December 29, and he served a three-game domestic ban for a social media post deemed racist by the Football Association, a decision decried as culturally insensitive in Uruguay. He still ended 2020-21 with 17 goals and five assists at a rate of one goal every 128 minutes, the best return of any United player. He also became the third Red Devil to score 10 or more Premier League goals in a single season in which he was 33 or older at the start (also Teddy Sheringham in 2000-01 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2016-17), and he equalled the record of five substitute goals over a whole campaign held by Javier Hernandez (2010-11) and Solskjaer (1998-99).

In the Europa League last-four tie against Roma, Cavani became the first player to score at least twice in each leg of a major European semi-final since 1986, when Klaus Allofs did so for Cologne against KSV Waregem. He was also the oldest player to score twice and assist twice in a Champions League or Europa League match, at 34 years and 74 days old. No wonder Solskjaer was so desperate to see him accept the one-year extension to his contract, and was presumably so relieved when he did.

Cavani and Suarez finished 2020-21 on 22 and 24 direct goal involvements, respectively. Among South America players, only Messi (50), Luis Muriel (36), Duvan Zapata  (31), Lautaro Martinez (26) and Neymar (25) had more.

 

So they come, then, to the Copa America, as two of the remaining members of that squad that lifted the trophy in 2011. They have the form, and undoubtedly the pedigree; they are Uruguay's all-time leading goalscorers, Suarez on 63 and Cavani 51.

And yet Uruguay are often consigned to the also-rans when it comes to tournament predictions. While they have waited a decade to lift the trophy, they are the most successful team in the competition's history, with the most appearances (45) and titles (15), yet few will look beyond emergency hosts Brazil and Argentina as favourites or Chile and Colombia as outside bets.

Perhaps the problem lies in a perception of bluntness around Uruguay's play, far removed from the ideals of jogo bonito. Despite holding the most Copa America titles, Uruguay boast a worse goal-per-game average (2.02) at the tournament than Argentina or Brazil; somewhat fittingly, their last triumph a decade ago came in the worst finals for goalscoring (54 in 26, or 2.08 per match) since 1922 (22 in 11, or 2.00 per match). Oscar Tabarez's men have also gone three games without a goal since a 3-0 win over Colombia last November.

If only they had a couple of star strikers who have spent the past year defying the doubters...

Before every major tournament, eyes are trained on the next generation of stars set to take the football world by storm.

This year's rescheduled Copa America is no different with the likes of Ecuador midfielder Moises Caicedo, Brazil right-back Emerson Royal and Colombia forward Jaminton Campaz on the scene.

But there is still no changing of the guard as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, among others, continue to dominate on the international stage.

Stats Perform looks at six players above the age of 30 and their eye-catching numbers heading into the 47th edition of the Copa America.

 

Lionel Messi, 33, Argentina

Messi enters the showpiece South American tournament on the back of another impressive club campaign. With 30 league goals in 2020-21, Barcelona superstar Messi has now recorded 25-plus goals in each his past 12 league seasons. Craving senior international silverware with La Albiceleste following runners-up appearances at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 and the World Cup in 2014, Messi scored 11 LaLiga goals direct following a ball carry last season – the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues. Following a third-placed finish in 2019, Messi – the country's all-time leading scorer with 72 goals, while only Javier Mascherano (147) has earned more caps than the six-time Ballon d'Or winner (144) – will be hoping this year's tournament delivers that much-coveted international prize. Argentina are in Group A alongside matchday one opponents Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Luis Suarez, 34, Uruguay

Suarez upstaged close friend Messi in 2020-21 after swapping Barca for Atletico Madrid. Having been forced out of Camp Nou amid concerns his best years were behind him, veteran forward Suarez found vindication and the ultimate revenge by leading to Atletico Madrid to LaLiga glory. His 21 goals were worth 21 points last season – the most of any player in the competition. Since 2011-12, only Messi (492) and Cristiano Ronaldo (411) have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top-five leagues than Suarez (325 – 233 goals and 92 assists). Uruguay's all-time leading goalscorer (63), Suarez is far from a spent force as Oscar Tabarez's side – who are scheduled to open their campaign against Argentina – fight to win a first Copa America crown since 2011. Suarez has been directly involved in nine goals in 10 games at the Copa America (six goals and three assists).

Edinson Cavani, 34, Uruguay

Cavani and Suarez are the face of a generation that delivered the 2011 title, finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup and reached the quarter-finals at Russia 2018. Cavani joined Manchester United on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain at the beginning of 2020-21 and made an immediate impact at Old Trafford, finishing the season with 10 Premier League goals and 17 across all competitions – his minutes per goal ratio both in the Premier League and in all competitions the best among his team-mates (137 and 128). In the Europa League final loss to Villarreal, Cavani became just the third player aged 34 or above to score in a major European decider for an English club, after Gary McAllister (36) for Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final against Deportivo Alaves in 2000-01 and Didier Drogba (34) for Chelsea in the Champions League final versus Bayern Munich in 2011-12. Only Suarez has scored more goals for Uruguay than Cavani (51 in 118 appearances), who earned a new deal in Manchester.

Alexis Sanchez, 32, Chile

Sanchez's club career had been on a steep decline since he left Arsenal for Premier League rivals United in 2018. But the Chile star has enjoyed success at Inter. Although a squad player under former Nerazzurri coach Antonio Conte, Sanchez – who joined Inter permanently last year – scored seven goals and supplied five assists in just 12 starts last term. An option in place of regular starting duo Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, Sanchez ranked better in shooting accuracy excluding blocks (69.6 per cent), passing accuracy (80.0), passing accuracy ending in the final third (73.5) and dribbled success rate (60.0) than both men. His big chance conversion rate (50.0) was only second to Lukaku, likewise his shot conversion rate (24.1). At international level, there is no disputing his role for Chile after leading La Roja to Copa America success in 2015 and 2016. Chile's most capped player (138) and leading goalscorer (46), Sanchez will once again carry the weight of his country this month.

Marcelo Martins, 33, Bolivia

The heart and soul of a nation? Look no further than Martins. The iconic forward stands alone as Bolivia's record holder for goals (25 in 83 appearances). Of those, 18 have come in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, also making Martins Bolivia's top scorer in that competition. Currently playing his football for Cruzeiro in Brazil, Martins scored three goals in the two qualifiers immediately prior to the Copa America, helping his side to earn four points. With their talisman leading the line, Bolivia – who won their only Copa America title on home soil in 1963 and lost the final when they hosted again in 1997 – are seeking to advance from the group stage for the first time since 2015. They start against Paraguay.

Paolo Guerrero, 37, Peru

Like Martins in Bolivia, Guerrero epitomises Peruvian football. The success of Peru has long been linked to the striker, who is in the history books for the most goals (38) for La Blanquirroja. Having debuted in 2004, this will be the captain's sixth Copa America appearance, having guided two-time winners Peru to third place in the 2011 and 2015 editions before securing a runners-up medal in 2019 – finishing as top scorer in all three of those tournaments. Guerrero is now the leading Copa America scorer in among active players (14) and only three shy of the all-time record (Norberto Mendez and Zizinho, both 17). While in the twilight of his career, Ricardo Gareca and Peru – who will come up against Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela – will be leaning on his experience across the border in Brazil.

Thiago Silva, 36, Brazil

There were some doubts about Silva's suitability to the Premier League when he saw out his PSG contract and opted to test himself with Chelsea. But the star centre-back did not look out of place in England, despite his advancing years, ending the campaign as a Champions League winner for the first time in his career. In all competitions in 2020-21, Silva led Chelsea in passing accuracy (93.0 per cent). He became Chelsea's oldest player (36 years and 249 days) to appear in a major European final, overtaking Claude Makelele against United in the 2008 Champions League decider (35 years and 93 days) as the Blues trumped Manchester City in Porto. The Selecao captain now turns his attention to Brazil's bid to claim back-to-back Copa America trophies. They have won five of the past nine.

Argentina left Juan Foyth and Lucas Ocampos out of their Copa America squad as Lionel Scaloni finalised his plans for the tournament in Brazil.

Scaloni made a last-minute adjustment as Bayer Leverkusen forward Lucas Alario was ruled out by injury and River Plate rising star Julian Alvarez took his place, .

The omissions of Foyth, who on Friday sealed a move from Tottenham to Villarreal, and Sevilla winger Ocampos, may be held up to scrutiny later.

However, Scaloni chose a 28-man squad packed with pedigree as Argentina attempt to conquer the Copa America for the first time since 1993, with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Lautaro Martinez giving the Albiceleste a formidable forward line.

Argentina face Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia in Group B of the South American championship. They were due to be co-hosts of the tournament but COVID-19 factors saw it move to Brazil at late notice.

Alario had been included on the initial final squad list sent to organisers CONMEBOL, but he was eventually excluded due to the hamstring injury that forced him to miss the closing weeks of Leverkusen's season.

Alvarez, 21, did not feature on Argentina's provisional list of 50 players but was allowed to join the squad because of Alario's injury.

CONMEBOL said in a statement: "This Friday, June 11, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) informed CONMEBOL of the injury of Lucas Alario, a player included in the list of 28 summoned for the CONMEBOL Copa America 2021 that had been delivered on Thursday, June 10.

"Given this, the Argentine Football Association requested the replacement of said player and the inclusion in his place of Julian Alvarez, a footballer not included in the first instance in the preliminary list presented on June 1.

"Said request was approved by the CONMEBOL medical commission in accordance with the provisions of the regulations and after the delivery of Form 2 [substitution of injured players]."

Argentina squad for Copa America:

Franco Armani (River Plate), Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa), Agustin Marchesín (Porto), Juan Musso (Udinese); Gonzalo Montiel (River Plate), Nicolas Otamendi (Benfica), German Pezzella (Fiorentina), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Lucas Martínez Quarta (Fiorentina), Marcos Acuna (Sevilla), Lisandro Martínez (Ajax), Cristian Romero (Atalanta), Nahuel Molina Lucero (Udinese); Leandro Paredes (PSG), Guido Rodríguez (Real Betis), Giovani Lo Celso (Tottenham), Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen), Angel Di María (PSG), Rodrigo De Paul (Udinese), Alejandro Gomez (Sevilla), Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid), Nicolas Dominguez (Bologna); Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Lautaro Martinez (Inter), Joaquin Correa (Lazio), Julian Alvarez (River Plate), Sergio Aguero (Barcelona), Nicolas Gonzalez (Stuttgart).

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