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.

Brazil's squad said they are "against" the Copa America but will not boycott the upcoming South American showpiece.

The Copa America is scheduled to get underway on Sunday, but the tournament has been overshadowed by controversy and uncertainty after CONMEBOL relocated the event to Brazil.

Postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus 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 COVID-19 issues.

Brazil was awarded hosting rights, despite being one of the country's worst hit by the coronavirus crisis.

Selecao captain Casemiro suggested the entire team were against hosting the Copa America on home soil, with head coach Tite promising more would be revealed following Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Paraguay.

After Neymar and Lucas Paqueta preserved Brazil's perfect qualifying record with a 2-0 win away from home, the squad stated their intentions in a statement via social media while criticising CONMEBOL.

"For different reasons, be they humanitarian or professional, we are not satisfied with the way the Copa America has been handled by CONMEBOL," the players said.

"All the recent facts lead us to believe in an inadequate process in realising [the tournament]."

Defending champions Brazil are scheduled to open the Copa America against Venezuela in Brasilia on Sunday.

Tite's Brazil are in Group B for the Copa America, alongside Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.

"We are workers, professional footballers. We have a mission to take with the historic green and yellow shirt that won the World Cup five times," the statement continued.

"We are against the organisation of the Copa America but we will never say no to playing for Brazil."

Amid the uncertainty, the future of Tite has also been called into question due to the stance of the squad.

But Tite told reporters post-match: "I am not a hypocrite. I am not aloof and I know what is happening. But I know what the priority is. The priority is my work and the dignity of my work."

Tite was reluctant to discuss the stance of his players regarding the Copa America following his historic outing against Paraguay.

Brazil boss tite has never lost in World Cup qualifying (W16 D2) – the longest unbeaten sequence for a coach of any national team in CONMEBOL history after the Selecao won in Paraguay for the first time since 1985.

Brazil made it six wins from six games in World Cup qualifying after Neymar's goal and Lucas Paqueta's late strike secured a 2-0 win over Paraguay.

Neymar broke the deadlock in the fourth minute before substitute Paqueta completed the scoring in the third minute of stoppage time as Brazil preserved their 100 per cent record in CONMEBOL qualifying on Tuesday.

A 67th international goal for Neymar – only 10 adrift of all-time record holder Pele – helped send Brazil six points clear of rivals Argentina atop the standings on the road to Qatar 2022.

Brazil entered the contest away to Paraguay amid continued uncertainty over the scheduled Copa America and their participation, with the Selecao squad united in their opposition of hosting the showpiece tournament on home soil.

On the field, Tite's Brazil impressed and quickly stamped their authority on the match thanks to star Neymar in Asuncion.

Neymar put Brazil ahead with a simple side-footed finish in the fourth minute after Richarlison scuppered his attempt to volley Gabriel Jesus' cross.

It was a good omen for Brazil, with the Copa America champions winning all eight of their previous games in which the Paris Saint-Germain forward had scored in World Cup qualifiers.

A ferocious long-range strike from Paraguay defender Omar Alderete almost restored parity four minutes later but Brazil goalkeeper Ederson was forced into a stunning save.

Richarlison, who almost added a second goal in the 12th minute, put the ball in the back of the net with a brilliant half-volley in the second minute of stoppage time but it was ruled out for offside.

The tempo dropped in the second half however Marquinhos went close to doubling Brazil's lead, with his header sailing just wide of the post in the 55th minute.

Richarlison was in the thick of the action with 20 minutes remaining following a dazzling run into the box however he was thwarted by Paraguay, but Paqueta struck in the 93rd minute to make sure of the points.

 

What does it mean? All eyes on Copa America

After extending their winning streak to seven matches, attention will now shift to the scheduled Copa America. It remains to be seen whether Tite's men will take part, with the event set to start on Sunday.

Clean sheet specialists

Amid their winning run, Brazil – who have not lost since their 1-0 friendly defeat to Argentina in 2019 – have only conceded two goals, keeping six clean sheets in the process.

Winless Paraguay

While Paraguay only lost by one goal, they never really troubled Brazil. Eduardo Berizzo's men have now gone four matches without a win, claiming just one victory from their six qualifiers to date.

What's next?

Brazil are scheduled to face Venezuela in the Copa America curtain-raiser on Sunday, while Paraguay are due to meet Bolivia on Monday.

Manchester United midfielder Fred has been called up to the Brazil squad for the first time since 2018 for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers with Ecuador and Paraguay.

The most recent of Fred's 11 senior international caps came in a 2-0 friendly win over Saudi Arabia two and a half years ago.

He has featured regularly for club side United once again this season, however, and has been included in Brazil's 24-man squad for their next set of Qatar 2022 qualifying fixtures.

Fred wrote on Twitter: "A great joy to represent my country again. Always proud to be called up. Let's go again!"

The 28-year-old was criticised by a number of pundits for his performance in Thursday's 4-2 Premier League defeat to Liverpool, but United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has regularly stood by the midfielder.

Fred has attempted 3.08 tackles per 90 minutes in the Premier League this term, the sixth highest average among all players to have played at least 20 times.

His 59.04 successful passes per 90 minutes, meanwhile, is behind only Nemanja Matic (76.56) in terms of United players to have played eight or more league games in 2020-21.

The ex-Shakhtar Donetsk player's passing has also improved during his time at Old Trafford, with Paul Pogba (9.47) the only United regular averaging more passes into the final third than Fred's 9.41 per game.

Asked at a news conference on Friday about his decision to recall Fred, Brazil head coach Tite said: "He has been included because of his high-level performances at United, the team that is second in the Premier League."

Fred is joined in the squad by veteran full-back Dani Alves, who last featured for Brazil in October 2019, while Lucas Paqueta, Gabriel Barbosa and Everton Ribeiro are also included.

The Selecao were last in action six months ago when seeing off Uruguay 2-0 to make it four wins from four in their CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group.

The fifth and sixth rounds of fixtures were scheduled to take place in March, but all the games were called off due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Brazil are gearing up for a busy period as the Copa America - originally due to be held last year - takes place between June 13 and July 10.

Tite will name his squad for the tournament on June 9 and is hoping to continue building momentum over the next couple of games.

"We have a very high expectation," Tite said. "It is a difficult moment for everyone. These games give us a chance to be in contact with the players.

"We will look at continuing with our performances and results. Right now it is only possible to think about these two games and nothing else."


Brazil squad: Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), Weverton (Palmeiras); Alex Sandro (Juventus), Dani Alves (Sao Paulo), Danilo (Juventus), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Renan Lodi (Atletico Madrid), Lucas Verissimo (Benfica), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Thiago Silva (Chelsea); Casemiro (Real Madrid), Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa), Everton Ribeiro (Flamengo), Fabinho (Liverpool), Fred (Manchester United), Lucas Paqueta (Lyon); Everton (Benfica), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Gabriel Barbosa (Flamengo), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Richarlison (Everton), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid).

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