Mexico's preparations for next month's crunch World Cup qualifier against the United States have been dealt a blow after a 3-2 defeat to Ecuador in an international friendly in Charlotte.

Walter Chala, making his second international appearance, scored the 75th-minute winner two minutes after coming off the bench for an under-strength Ecuador.

Both sides were missing several key Europe-based players, although that did not detract from an entertaining encounter, where three goals were scored in the opening quarter of an hour.

Jhonny Quinonez opened the scoring in the second minute when his scuffed bouncing effort beat Mexico goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco.

Mexico levelled four minutes when a fallen Santiago Gimenez, who had his initial effort blocked, flicked a ball across goal for Roberto Alvarado to tap home.

Ecuador restored their advantage when Washington Corozo worked a neat one-two with Toluca forward Michael Estrada, before bundling a shot past Orozco.

Mexico equalised again on the hour when Osvaldo Rodriguez rifled in a stunning left-foot strike from outside the box after Fernando Beltran's shot had been parried away.

Ecuador found the winner from a throw-in as debutant Djorkaeff Reasco flicked the ball back from the byline, allowing Chala to ghost in at the back post and finish with ease.

Lionel Messi's long wait for major international honours with Argentina is finally over after playing a starring role in their Copa America triumph, winning the Player of the Tournament prize before the final was even played.

In the age-old – and some might say tiresome – 'greatest of all time' debate, the stick usually used to beat Messi with revolved around his lack of titles with Argentina, but that is no longer relevant and he also played a vital role for La Albiceleste.

It was also an important barrier that Argentina broke down as a team, winning their first major international title since 1993.

Messi's performances see him lead Stats Perform's Opta data-driven Team of the Tournament, and he is joined by some familiar names as well as those who enjoyed breakthroughs over the past month.

 

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Argentina)

Aston Villa keeper Martinez has enjoyed a remarkable 18 months or so and it's fair to say his form at the Copa America has helped truly cement his place as Argentina's first choice between the posts. His personality proved vital in the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the semi-finals as he psyched out Yerry Mina, but he also showed his excellence by finishing with an 85.7 per cent save ratio that was the second best in the tournament, while his four clean sheets was the best tally.

 

Right-back – Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)

Cuadrado can always be relied upon to provide some attacking impetus on the right flank and he certainly didn't disappoint in the Copa, his 18 chances created being the most for Colombia and among the top five of all players. The same could be said of his 22 open-play crosses, while Cuadrado also made 45 recoveries, the second most in Los Cafeteros' squad, highlighting how he was often in the right place to sweep up danger as well.

 

Centre-back – Marquinhos (Brazil)

While Brazil ultimately fell short at the Maracana on Saturday, Marquinhos can leave the tournament with his head held high. His ability to bring the ball out from the back was routinely notable, as highlighted by the fact his 110 carries was bettered by only four players, all of whom are forwards, but he was also a commanding presence at the back, with his 2.8 aerial the most among Brazil players.

Centre-back – Piero Hincapie (Ecuador)

Still only 19, Hincapie showed real promise here. Granted, there were signs that he remains quite raw and naive, as demonstrated by some of his struggles against Argentina in the quarter-finals when he was sent off late on for tugging back Angel Di Maria. Nevertheless, the Lazio-linked talent averaged the most passes per game for Ecuador (52.2) and showed real positivity when in possession, carrying the ball 600.7 metres upfield over the course of the tournament, at least 44m more than any other centre-back.

Left-back – Pervis Estupinan (Ecuador)

Estupinan endured a somewhat underwhelming first season with Villarreal in 2020-21, but in the Copa he showed glimpses of the player that had impressed so regularly with Osasuna the season before. He was consistently a useful outlet on the left and his eagerness to create saw him average more crosses per 90 minutes (9.6) than any other player in the tournament, while his 2.4 key passes each game was the most of all defenders.

Central midfield – Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

The all-action midfielder performed an important function as Colombia ultimately finished third in the Copa. Barrios was tidy in possession as he looked to keep Reinaldo Rueda's men ticking, completing 88 per cent of his passes, but he was also effective at regaining possession and recovering the ball as he started 76 open play sequences, which only Yoshimar Yotun and Casemiro could better.

Central midfield – Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)

Get ready to hear a bit more about De Paul over the next few years. While he's by no means an unknown given he's had a strong few years with Udinese, the midfielder is set to join Atletico Madrid and offers the blend of off-the-ball nous and technical ability that should see him thrive under Diego Simeone. His 32 ball recoveries led the way for Argentina while his six key passes was second only to Lionel Messi, with one of those being the glorious long-range pass to release Di Maria for the crucial goal in the final.

Right wing – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

While he may have fluffed his lines at the end of the final, Messi's exploits throughout the tournament previously meant he could be forgiven for that. After all, without his unbeaten four goals and five assists – a high for the tournament – Argentina almost certainly wouldn't have reached the showpiece. He remains one goal behind Pele's record (77) for CONMEBOL nations, but he finally has his first trophy with Argentina, and that's what matters most.

 

Attacking midfield – Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar had a peculiar tournament in some ways. No one would suggest he was poor, because he was routinely the player that provided the spark for Brazil, as evidenced by his tournament-leading 3.5 key passes and 21.6 passes into the final third each game (among players with more than one match played), but he was also wasteful in front of goal, his one non-penalty goal from 5.3 xG giving him the worst xG under-performance (4.3) at the tournament.

 

Left wing – Luis Diaz (Colombia)

Porto's Diaz is an exciting player and showed as much for Colombia as they claimed bronze. He scored more non-penalty goals (four) than any other player and produced some spectacular finishes, such as his remarkable bicycle-kick against Brazil and 30-yard screamer to seal victory in the third-place play-off against Peru. His four goals came from just 10 shots, with that 40 per cent conversion the best among those with three or more goals.

 

Striker – Lautaro Martinez (Argentina)

Despite the presence of Sergio Aguero, Martinez was the man generally chosen to lead the line at the Copa and he did fairly well as he netted three goals, with only Messi and Diaz getting more. While he was guilty of wastefulness at times, his three-goal haul was actually pretty close to his 3.3 xG, showing that for the most part he was dependable. Similarly, only two players averaged more shots on target per 90 minutes (players with more than one match played) than his 1.4. He also improved on his two goals from the 2019 edition, so he's seemingly going in the right direction.

Argentina are determined to avoid allowing Ecuador any sweet 16 celebrations after Saturday's quarter-final, having never lost in 15 previous Copa America clashes with La Tri.

Experienced defender Nicolas Otamendi said Argentina would look to provide a platform for their attacking stars, who include the likes of Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martinez, by keeping it tight at the back against the Ecuadorians.

While Argentina topped their group, achieving three wins and a draw from four games, Ecuador scraped through with three draws and a defeat from the pool containing Brazil.

It was a 1-1 draw with an under-strength Brazil in Goiania on Sunday that carried Ecuador into the knockout rounds, and it would be a monumental shock if they beat Argentina.

However, the last-eight clash is also being played in Goiania, at the Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico where Ecuador tamed the Selecao.

Otamendi, the former Manchester City star who now plays club football for Benfica, said: "Defensive solidity gives you a better attack. With the attacking potential we have, it's important to give them security so they can attack calmly.

"We have to try to have defensive order to take advantage of the potential we have from midfield forward."

Otamendi added: "This shirt demands commitment and winning tournaments. You always want to make a mark with your country. We will try to do our best to progress."

Argentina last won the Copa America in 1993 and head coach Lionel Scaloni told a news conference that playmaker Giovani Lo Celso would start Saturday's game.

"Ecuador are rivals of maximum difficulty," Scaloni added. "We must respect them and go out into the field with total humility. It will be a very difficult match."

Ecuador midfielder Jhegson Mendez was outstanding against Brazil, with team highs for possession gained (10 times) and interceptions (3), while finding his man with 48 of 50 passes for a 96 per cent success rate.

It will take something similar to attempt to stifle Argentina, and Mendez said on Friday: "Every game is different, each team has its own approach. We have ours and we will try in midfield to control as much of the game as possible to give ourselves more chances and be 100 per cent concentrated to minimise errors."

 


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

Amid seemingly endless hoopla over when or whether he will sign a new Barcelona contract, Messi is attempting to stay focused on delivering a major trophy for his country. He won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2008 but that feels like a meagre return for his contribution to La Albiceleste. Messi took his tallies to 75 goals and 148 appearances when he struck twice in the group finale against Bolivia. It is beyond obvious that he is the man Ecuador will fear the most.

Ecuador – Jhegson Mendez

Enner Valencia and Angel Mena were excellent going forward against Brazil, but Ecuador's hopes for their clash with a full-strength Argentina are likely to hinge on how they manage the game. If Mendez and his midfield colleagues can show discipline, keep their shape and protect their defence, they will have done exceedingly well. But that will be imperative if they are to somehow pull off a victory.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- Argentina have never lost against Ecuador at the Copa America in 15 games (W10 D5). The Argentinians have scored in 13 of those 15 games. However, this will be the first meeting between the teams in the knockout stage of the competition.

- Argentina have kept three cleen sheets in their last five games against Ecuador in the Copa America (W3 D2). In this period, Argentina have scored 12 goals and only conceded two.

- Ecuador have lost just one of their last five games in the Copa America, including a draw with guest team Japan at the 2019 tournament. However, they are winless in these five matches, with four draws and a defeat.

- Argentina were the only team to score a direct free-kick in the 2021 Copa America group stage. Messi scored this goal against Chile at the start of the competition.

- Messi was the player with the most dribbles completed (22) in the group stage.

Brazil head coach Tite insisted "perfection does not exist" after the Selecao's 10-game winning streak was snapped following a 1-1 draw with Ecuador at the Copa America.

Neymar was rested for Brazil's final Group B fixture as the defending champions played out a disappointing stalemate against Ecuador at the Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico on Sunday.

Eder Militao's first international goal gave Brazil – who made 10 changes to the starting line-up – a 37th-minute lead before Angel Mena secured a point for Ecuador eight minutes into the second half.

Tite had been looking to extend Brazil's winning streak in pursuit of the country's all-time record – 14 under legendary boss Mario Zagallo – but his team were forced to share the spoils in their final group fixture.

"Saying that you cannot err is not human, perfection does not exist, what we have to do is minimise the margin of error for a team," Tite said post-match.

"When we talk about defensive solidity and also when we talk about game generation, we have to find the balance point without being too defensive or offensive.

"During matches there are different ways to play, dominance is when you have the ball and you try to attack, control when you stand further back, you do not have the ball and the opponent does not generate danger.

"So to play these difficult games we have to find the balance between dominance and control."

It was the first time Brazil had scored at least one goal at the CONMEBOL showpiece tournament and did not win since the 2015 edition.

Brazil, meanwhile, are the only team to score more than one header at this year's Copa America – Militao's goal was the nation's third consecutive headed goal.

Tite's Brazil will face either 15-time Copa champions Uruguay or two-time winners Chile in the quarter-finals.

"I can't choose, they both have tradition, quality, individual technique and weight of the jerseys, great technicians, outstanding players," Tite replied when asked who he would prefer to face in the last eight.

"The three of us are the last Copa America champions and with Uruguay we are a historic South American classic, I can't choose."

Neymar, a mask hanging from his left ear, took a bite from a bar and gestured this way and that. This was a game the world's most expensive player was happy to sit out, his unique talents probably better saved for another occasion.

Such as that which awaits Brazil on Friday, back at the Estadio Olimpico Nilton Santos in Rio de Janeiro, when Uruguay or Chile will be the opposition for Tite's team.

This Sunday showdown with Ecuador was one for La Tri to savour and the Selecao to get out of the way, perhaps learn a thing or two but ideally come through unscathed and with a thing or two for the head coach to mull over before the knockout stage begins.

So Ecuador made the most of their opportunity to face Brazil at just about their most meek, the 1-1 draw sending Gustavo Alfaro's team through to the Copa America quarter-finals and a likely clash with Argentina next.

Whoever Ecuador do come up against next, they will be back here at the Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico in Goiania, where after holding the five-time World Cup winners to a deserved draw they had every reason to celebrate.

Ecuador are through to the Copa last eight for just the second time in the 21st century, and they were full value for their point as they finished above Venezuela and brought Brazil's 10-game winning streak – a record for Tite at the helm of the national team – to an end.

But what of Brazil? Tite made a raft of changes to ensure his hand will be as strong as possible for when the stiff competition begins, and it was hard to pick a promoted player who did his hopes of starting that quarter-final any good.

Certainly not Roberto Firmino, who started behind Gabriel Barbosa and played just 17 passes and had a mere 25 touches before being substituted midway through the second half. The Liverpool forward did not have a single goal attempt, and strikeforce spearhead Barbosa had only one, an early prod at a clever lobbed pass from Lucas Paqueta.

It fell to defender Eder Militao to show the Brazil attackers the route to goal, his neat header in the 37th minute opening the scoring.

Militao, Paqueta and Douglas Luiz danced away in a presumably rehearsed celebration, and you wondered if that was the kickstart this flat Brazil performance needed, the cue for a raising of their game.

'Vibra el continente' read the pitchside boards – 'Rock the continent'.

Brazil were rocking in a shy way here though, enjoying 71.1 per cent of first-half possession but not looking in the mood for a kill.

Angelo Preciado saw a thumping shot deflect just over the bar early in the second half as Ecuador chased an equaliser, and Enner Valencia also went close with a low strike before Angel Mena lashed past Alisson to level up in the 53rd minute.

Mena became the second substitute to score for Ecuador at this year's Copa, after Gonzalo Plata. Only Brazil (four) have benefited from more goals via a substitute this tournament.

A clever headed pass by Valencia set up the chance for the equaliser as Brazil's defence nodded off, and Ecuador went on to dominate the half, even swinging the possession dial around in their favour. They had 50.8 per cent of the ball in the second 45 minutes, five goals attempts to Brazil's two. Sebas Mendez was a titan in midfield, albeit against semi-interested opposition, winning possession a game-high 10 times and finding his man with 48 of his 50 passes over the 90 minutes.

 

Valencia was denied by a brave defensive header from Militao, who got to Preciado's dangerous cross just ahead of the former West Ham striker, and Ecuador then wanted a penalty when the ball struck Everton on the arm.

Mena almost scored a stunning second for Ecuador when his free-kick from close to the right touchline was whipped in with audacious curl and dip, forcing Alisson to tip over his crossbar.

Richarlison and Vinicius Junior came on as Tite looked to spark Brazil to life, but there was to be no ignition. It was the first time the reigning Copa America champions had scored at least one goal at the CONMEBOL showpiece and did not win since the 2015 edition.

Brazil are unbeaten against Ecuador in their last 11 games now, and this result probably matters very little, given the wins over Colombia, Peru and Venezuela that preceded it.

Moreover, the theory that you are only as good as your last game hardly applies when you rest the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Thiago Silva, Casemiro and Fred.

Yet Neymar, as he took another gnaw at his touchline snack, might have wondered when a Brazil team had ever looked so passive as this side did after the interval.

Brazil finished their Copa America Group B campaign with a disappointing 1-1 draw against Ecuador on Sunday. 

With their place in the knockout stages already secured before the clash at the Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico, Tite opted to make 10 changes to the side that beat Colombia three days ago, with only captain Marquinhos keeping his place.

Eder Militao put the Selecao ahead shortly before half-time, but Ecuador improved after the break and deservedly sealed a point through Angel Mena.

Brazil will play the fourth-placed team in Group A in the quarter-finals on Friday, while Ecuador will play the winner of that group a day later. 

The much-changed Brazil starting XI struggled in the early stages, only testing Ecuador goalkeeper Hernan Galindez through Gabriel Barbosa inside the opening 20 minutes. 

Lucas Paqueta steered an effort wide from the edge of the penalty shortly after the midway point of the first half as Brazil started to exert more pressure on their opponents.

Their improvement was rewarded eight minutes before the interval when Militao headed home his first Brazil goal from Everton's free-kick. 

Ecuador drew level in the 53rd minute, though, substitute Mena firing past Alisson from 10 yards after latching onto Enner Valencia's headed pass. 

Substitute Vinicius Junior missed a glorious opportunity to restore Brazil's lead in the 66th minute, skewing wide at the back post from Paqueta's cross. 

The holders rarely looked like finding a winner in the closing stages as Brazil's run of 10 consecutive wins came to an end with a whimper.


What does it mean? Brazil's second string disappoints 

Victories over Peru, Colombia and Venezuela afforded Tite the opportunity to dip into his squad for this final group game and those fringe players did not exactly cover themselves in glory. 

It is unlikely many of those players will feature in the last-eight clash, with the likes of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison refreshed and ready to reclaim their spots. 

Militao a rare bright spot

Militao was one of the few Brazil players who could hold his head high at full-time. In addition to opening his international account, the Real Madrid man made the most successful passes in the match (69), while no Brazil player made more clearances (five).

Firmino fails to shine

Roberto Firmino summed up Brazil's woes, the Liverpool striker failing to take a single shot during his 63 minutes on the pitch. A place back on the bench beckons for the 29-year-old for the quarter-finals.

What's next?

Brazil will know their opponents in the last eight after the final two games in Group A on Monday, while Ecuador are next in action against Paraguay in World Cup qualifying in September.

Brazil will be looking to stretch their unbeaten run over Ecuador to 11 games when they wrap up their Copa America Group B campaign on Sunday. 

Tite's men have started the tournament in fine form, beating Colombia, Peru and Venezuela to ensure their place in the last eight was secured long before the group's final game. 

They have scored nine goals in those three games and conceded just once. 

Given their place in the knockout stage is already secured, Tite could well shuffle his pack.

Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino, in particular, will be hoping for a first start of the tournament after coming off the bench to score the equaliser against Colombia last time out, while Real Madrid man Vinicius Junior will be hoping to improve on his paltry five minutes of action so far. 

Ecuador, meanwhile, need a win to guarantee their place in the last eight, although they will progress regardless of the result if Venezuela lose to Peru on Sunday. 

They followed up their opening 1-0 defeat to Colombia with consecutive 2-2 draws against Venezuela and Peru. 

That has left them level with Venezuela on two points, though they have a superior goal difference to Jose Peseiro's side.

They have unsurprisingly struggled against Brazil historically, with their last win against the Selecao coming in the South American World Cup qualifiers in 2006.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Neymar

He did not get on the scoresheet against Colombia, but Neymar was heavily involved in the action. 

The Paris Saint-Germain superstar had five shots – a game high – and played two key passes, which was only bettered by Fred from either side. 

He did blot his copybook, however, by losing possession a whopping 40 times – 22 more times than any other player on the pitch, evidence that he was rather wasteful. Something for the 29-year-old to improve on against Ecuador.

Ecuador –​ Ayrton Preciado

Preciado scored his second goal of the campaign in the 2-2 draw with Peru last time out. 

The Santos Laguna winger was a real handful in that clash, taking more touches (90) and playing more key passes (three) than any other player on the pitch.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Tite has won his last 10 games with Brazil in all competitions, his best run since he took over the job. 
- After winning four consecutive games in all competitions, Ecuador are winless in their last five (D2 L3), including two consecutive 2-2 draws against Colombia and Peru in the current Copa America.
- Brazil are the team with the most shots on target per game in the Copa America (6.7). They have also scored the most goals in the competition (nine in three games).
- Ecuador have put in the most crosses per game in the Copa America (29.3), with a 27.3 per cent success rate. They have the third best percentage of successful crosses in the competition after Paraguay and Colombia.

Peru rallied from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 draw with Ecuador at the Copa America on Wednesday.

Ecuador were in control of the Group B contest against Peru on Wednesday – leading 2-0 at half-time in Goiania.

A Renato Tapia own goal had handed Ecuador a 1-0 lead after 23 minutes and Eduar Preciado doubled the advantage in the third minute of first-half stoppage time.

Peru – runners-up in 2019 – had entered the fixture knowing victory would see them through to the quarter-finals of CONMEBOL's showpiece tournament.

Former Milan forward Gianluca Lapadula inspired Peru's comeback with a stunning five-minute performance in the second half.

Lapadula scored his first international goal in the 49th minute to give hope to Peru – the only side to have progressed from all group stages in the Copa America since 1997.

The Italy-born Benevento forward then turned provider, teeing up Andre Carrillo for the equaliser five minutes later as Peru escaped with a point.

The result left Peru third in Group B on four points from three games, level with Colombia and two points behind defending champions Brazil, while Ecuador sit fourth with two points from their three fixtures.

Peru beat Ecuador in a World Cup qualifier this month and a repeat of that victory on Wednesday will see them through to the quarter-finals of the Copa America.

Goals from Luis Advincula and Christian Cueva in Quito on June 8 gave Peru a first win in the battle to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar next year.

The Blanquirroja responded to a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Brazil in their Copa America opener by beating Colombia 2-1 in Goiania on Sunday.

Ricardo Gareca's side moved up to third in Group B courtesy of a Yerry Mina own goal and with four teams qualifying for the last eight, they are on the verge of advancing.

Peru, beaten in the 2019 final by Brazil, will have to improve at the back, having failed to keep a clean sheet in 11 matches but will be on a high after ending a run of 10 games without getting the better of Colombia.

Ecuador are bottom of the group with one point after Ronald Hernandez's stoppage-time goal salvaged a 2-2 draw for Venezuela on Sunday.

La Tri boss Gustavo Alfaro is well aware of the threat Peru pose ahead of the clash at Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico Teixeira.

He said: "We must not forget that they have come from being finalists of the last Copa America. Apart from the fact that they had a bad start to the qualifying rounds, they are in a process of recovery. They have a very good and capable coach in Ricardo Gareca.

"I have full confidence in who we are, in the capacities that they have from the middle of the field forward, in how they dominate situations, in everything they have done in knockout games."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ecuador – Gonzalo Plata

Plata was only introduced as a substitute midway through the second half against Venezuela but surely did enough to earn a start.

The winger put La Tri in front for a second time and hit the target with three of his four shots in a lively cameo, also providing two key passes.

 

Peru – Alexander Callens

A lack of clean sheets has been an issue for Peru, but Callens played a big hand in the win over Colombia at the heart of their defence.

His seven clearances were over twice as many as any other player as Peru picked up three precious points.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Ecuador have failed to win in their previous five games against Peru in World Cup qualification and Copa America (D1 L4) fixtures. Previously, they were 11 games unbeaten against Los Incas in these competitions (W7 D4).

- Three of the four Ecuador wins under Gustavo Alfaro were at home: their only win away from home with him as a manager was against Bolivia, in World Cup qualification.

- Peru are the only side to have progressed from all group stages in the Copa America since 1997. Argentina are the other team that have never been eliminated in the first round in that time, though they did not appear in Copa America 2001.

- Thanks to his goal against Venezuela, Ecuador's Plata became the first player born in the 21st century to score in Copa America.

- Two Peruvians rank in the top four players with the most recoveries per game in this Copa America (at least two appearances): Renato Tapia (10.5), Yoshimar Yotun (9, alongside Ecuador's Pervis Estupinan), surpassed only by Junior Alonso (11).

An injury-time goal from substitute Ronald Hernandez earned Venezuela a 2-2 draw with Ecuador in a dramatic finish to the Copa America clash on Sunday.

Jose Peseiro's men looked to be heading for a second defeat in three games after Gonzalo Plata joined Ayrton Preciado on the scoresheet for Ecuador, those goals coming either side of Edson Castillo netting for Venezuela.

However, Hernandez headed in at the death in Rio de Janeiro to boost his side's hopes of progressing to the knockout stages of the tournament.

That allowed Venezuela to add to the point they earned when holding Colombia to a 0-0 draw.

Ecuador made a strong start, hitting the woodwork after just four minutes when Leonardo Campana met a Pervis Estupinan cross with a low shot that clipped the post.

Although clearly prioritising defensively solidity in the early stages, Venezuela showed their threat on the break when Cristian Casseres blasted over the bar.

The same man then went close with a lob that Pedro Ortiz did just enough to keep out and which would have been awarded by VAR, had it dropped in, despite an on-pitch offside call.

That early flurry of chances was not in keeping with a poor first half, but Ecuador livened things up before the break as Preciado bundled home in the 39th minute after a free-kick.

And the excitement continued early in the second period as Castillo marked his first start for his country by levelling with a powerful header from Jose Martinez's right-wing cross in the 51st minute.

Venezuela almost moved into the lead with 20 minutes remaining as a Casseres corner somehow squeezed through to hit the base of the post before being desperately cleared.

But it was a counter from the subsequent corner that saw Ecuador go back in front in the 71st minute, Plata poking the ball home having first been denied at the end of a brilliant breakaway down the right.

Enner Valencia should have wrapped things up shortly after when he was played in behind, but his effort trickled wide of the far post with the goalkeeper stranded.

And that miss was punished as the game headed into time added on, Hernandez meeting a superb pass in behind from Castillo to head the ball home and claim a point.

What does it mean? Ecuador under threat

Given the state of play at kick-off, this fixture represented a huge opportunity for both teams to pull away from Peru in the race to avoid bottom spot in Group B.

And it seemed like Ecuador had taken their chance until Hernandez's equaliser, which makes their upcoming meeting with Peru all the more vital to their hopes of progressing.

Castillo impresses

Having only made his debut for his country at this tournament, Castillo not only marked his first start with a first goal but also provided the brilliant raking assist for Hernandez.

Valencia misfires

Ecuador would have been out of sight had Valencia found the target with either of his two shots, both of which came from presentable opportunities.

What's next?

Ecuador are back in action on Wednesday when they take on Peru in Goiania. Venezuela, meanwhile, must wait until Sunday to wrap up their group-stage campaign against the Peruvians in Brasilia.

Without a win and out of form, pressure is building on Ecuador but there is a togetherness within the squad at the Copa America.

Ecuador slumped to a 1-0 loss to Colombia in their Copa opener last week, condemning La Tri to a third consecutive defeat.

Gustavo Alfaro's side will have the chance to arrest their slump against Venezuela in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, but Copa history is against them.

Ecuador have not beaten a CONMEBOL opponent at the showpiece South American tournament since 2001, their 4-0 defeat of Venezuela followed by a 14-game winless run in such matches.

The team's only victories in the intervening period have come against CONCACAF pair Mexico and Haiti.

Despite the cause for concern, Sebas Mendez insists Ecuador remain united heading into their second Group B fixture.

"We have a great responsibility, which is to represent the country, people are following us," Mendez said as Ecuador – who have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals and exited in the 2019 group stage – look to kick-start their campaign in Brazil.

"The group is united. We know the goal we want so we are working in every way to be able to do it."  

Ecuador will come up against a Venezuela team buoyed by their gritty performance in Thursday's goalless draw with Colombia.

While Venezuela only have one point from their opening two matches, the minnows have shown great resilience in the absence of Tomas Rincon and Romulo Otero due to COVID-19.

Venezuela, despite their coronavirus issues, will be chasing a long-overdue win over Ecuador, having not tasted victory against them since the 2011 Copa America.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Venezuela – Wuilker Farinez

Farinez almost single-handedly kept Colombia at bay to earn a point for Venezuela last time out. There was no way past the 23-year-old Lens goalkeeper, who made eight saves to keep a clean sheet. It was double the number of saves he made in the three games he played with Lens during the 2020-21 Ligue 1 season. His eight saves are the joint-most by a goalkeeper that kept a clean sheet at the Copa America since 2007, following Paraguay's Gatito Fernandez in 2019.

Ecuador – Pervis Estupinan

A Europa League winner with Villarreal in 2020-21, the 23-year-old left-back has made a strong start to the Copa America. While Ecuador missed out on three points against Colombia, Estupinan was a handful, particularly in attack. He forced a strong save from David Ospina, finishing the clash with a team-high two key passes and one of Ecuador's two shots on target.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- This meeting is one of the less common matches in the history of the tournament – it will be only the fourth match between Venezuela and Ecuador at the Copa America.
- The record currently favours Ecuador, who have won twice and lost just once, with the other game drawn. However, Venezuela won the last Copa America meeting between the teams, triumphing 1-0 in 2011.
- Venezuela will seek to score a goal in the Copa America after failing to achieve it in the last three matches in the competition.
- Ecuador are undefeated for six consecutive games against Venezuela in all competitions.
- Ecuador is the second-highest team in terms of possession in the current Copa America. Their average so far is 58.59 per cent, only behind Paraguay, who average 77.85 per cent.

Colombia's winning start to the Copa America ground to a halt as they were held to a 0-0 draw by Venezuela, whose goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez kept La Tricolor's illustrious forwards at bay.

Reinaldo Rueda's side dominated the contest at Olimpico Pedro Ludovico in Goiania but failed to find a way past Venezuela's hardworking keeper.

Rueda restored Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel to his starting line-up but the duo were frustrated as Colombia attempted 12 first-half shots without success.

The introduction of Porto winger Luis Diaz did little to improve their prospects, and he was shown a straight red card in stoppage time as Venezuela battled to a valuable point.

Yerry Mina should have opened the scoring when he stretched to meet Daniel Munoz's cross after 13 minutes but could not poke the ball into the gaping net.

Colombia continued to press and Edwin Cardona drew a good save from Farinez with a low drive from the edge of the box, and Zapata was denied in a one-on-one moments later.

Zapata burst through a line of Venezuela defenders 10 minutes before the interval but his fierce angled shot was parried away well by Farinez.

Farinez's determined display continued in the second half, when he made a fingertip save to push Mateus Uribe's spectacular overhead kick over the crossbar. The goalkeeper made eight saves in total.

The game became fractious as both sides tired, and Diaz was shown a straight red card after a clash with Francisco La Mantia, compounding Colombia's frustration.

What does it mean? Brazil poised to go top

A point for Brazil against Peru on Friday would be enough to send them top of the group, as Colombia rue their missed opportunities to claim what would have been a second win in as many Group B matches.

Cuadrado not to blame

Colombia rely on Juan Cuadrado to provide their strikers with opportunities, and the Juventus wide man did not disappoint, contributing seven key passes.

No repeat of Cardona magic

Cardona scored just before half-time to help Colombia win their Group B opener against Ecuador, but here he laboured and was substituted after 62 minutes with one shot on target to his name.

What's next?

Venezuela face Ecuador in their third Zona Norte match on Sunday, while Colombia take on Peru.

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.

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.

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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