Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa scored an 85th-minute penalty as Brazil came from behind to preserve their perfect CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying record with a late 3-1 win at Venezuela.

The Selecao had never lost in 17 previous World Cup qualifiers against Venezuela (W16 D1) – the most Brazil had faced an opponent without defeat – but the South American giants found themselves sensationally trailing at half-time on Thursday.

Eric Ramirez's first international goal had bottom outfit Venezuela dreaming of the unlikeliest of wins in the 11th minute, but Marquinhos equalised in the 71st minute in Caracas.

Gabigol was fouled with five minutes remaining and converted his own spot-kick to guide CONMEBOL leaders Brazil to their ninth win in nine qualifiers on the road to Qatar 2022, with Antony adding a third goal in the 96th minute.

Brazil made a bright start away to lowly Venezuela, as Gabigol saw effort flash just wide of the post in the seventh minute.

Against the run of play four minutes later, Venezuela claimed a surprise lead thanks to Ramirez.

Yeferson Soteldo charged down the wing and delivered an inch-perfect cross to Ramirez, who made no mistake as he guided his header past Alisson and into the bottom corner of the net.

Ramirez's goal ended Brazil's sequence of six consecutive clean sheets in World Cup qualifying – the longest of any team in the history of the CONMEBOL tournament.

Brazil continued to control proceedings but had nothing to show for it after Everton Ribeiro's shot deflected onto the crossbar in the 22nd minute, evading his team-mates for a tap-in.

Venezuela made it to half-time without conceding but Brazil put the ball in the back of the net 11 minutes into second half.

Fortunately for Venezuela, Thiago Silva's headed goal for Brazil was disallowed due to offside, much to the disappointment of the Selecao.

Venezuela continued to take the game to Brazil as the contest opened up, with the visitors chasing an equaliser, and they did restore parity via Marquinhos' towering header 19 minutes from the end.

Brazil broke Venezuela's hearts during the closing stages after Gabigol – who was tackled from behind as he tried to pounce on Vinicius Junior's rebound – coolly scored from the spot before Antony made it 3-1 with the last kick of the game.

 

What does it mean? No stopping Brazil after scare

Brazil were facing the very real prospect of their first ever qualifying loss to Venezuela before Marquinhos and Gabigol. With it, Brazil extended their unbeaten run in World Cup qualifiers to 26 matches, dating back to 2015.

Gabigol steps up late

Time after time, Gabigol has showed his quality for Brazilian giants Flamengo. Now, the former Inter forward is performing on the international stage. Gabigol scored his third international goal and first since the 2016 Copa America.

So close but yet so far

Venezuela threatened a boilover on home soil, but the minnows instead were left licking their wounds following a fifth consecutive defeat. Venezuela are winless in 10 matches across all competitions and are bottom of the CONMEBOL standings.

What's next?

Brazil will make the trip to Colombia on Sunday as Venezuela host Ecuador on the same day.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni urged his team not to "rest on our laurels" after the in-form Copa America champions set up a mouth-watering top-of-the-table World Cup qualifying showdown with rivals Brazil.

Lautaro Martinez, Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa were on target as Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to 21 matches by downing 10-man Venezuela 3-1 in CONMEBOL qualifying on Thursday.

After first-half substitute Luis Martinez was sent off for a horrifying challenge on Lionel Messi in the 32nd minute, Argentina – playing for the first time since July's drought-ending Copa triumph over Brazil, their first title in 28 years – took control of proceedings.

Argentina are second and unbeaten through seven qualifiers on the road to Qatar 2022, six points behind Brazil, while they have not tasted defeat since November 2019.

As Argentina turn their attention to Sunday's blockbuster in Sao Paulo, where Brazil will put their perfect record on the line, Scaloni told reporters post-game: "It's special for the players to have the patch of champions on their chest, they fought so hard to win the Copa America.

"The important thing is to not rest on our laurels."

The complexion of the match changed when Luis Martinez – who replaced Jose Velazquez earlier in the half – saw red.

Messi went to ground after receiving a high foot to the shin and the challenge, initially a yellow card, was upgraded to red after the referee consulted the pitch-side monitor following a VAR review.

Lautaro Martinez then opened the scoring in the second minute of first-half stoppage time, the Inter star scoring his third goal in qualifying after being played through by Giovani Lo Celso.

Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa struck within three minutes – the 71st and 74th minute – to put the result beyond doubt, though Yeferson Soteldo's last-gasp spot-kick gave the home crowd something to celebrate.

Looking ahead to the Copa America final rematch with Brazil, Scaloni added: "We will have time to analyse how the players are. It will be a different game and everyone is available.

"We have things to improve, surely, but I'm not going to say them. We always have to improve, when you win or lose. We will try to do our best."

Lautaro Martinez added: "The three points are very important. Venezuela is a very complicated opponent. In South America, they're all difficult but we had a great first half.

"We created chances and after the goal we were able to work with more peace of mind. We brought home three important points. I think we had a great first half today, beyond the fact that they were down a man.

"For a striker, it's important to score but the most important thing is that the Argentina national team win. You always have to think about the group."

Argentina maintained their unbeaten start to CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying with a 3-1 victory over 10-man Venezuela.

Lionel Messi and Argentina were playing for the first time since their drought-ending Copa America triumph on July 10 – La Albiceleste upstaged rivals Brazil for their first title since 1993.

Lautaro Martinez, Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa were on target for Argentina on Thursday, guiding Lionel Scaloni's side to their fourth win in seven qualifiers on the road to Qatar 2022.

Venezuela played with 10 men from the 32nd minute after substitute Luis Martinez was sent off for a horror challenge on Messi and Argentina made the most of their numerical advantage – Lautaro Martinez breaking the deadlock in the second minute of first-half stoppage time before Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa completed the scoring in second period.

Yeferson Soteldo converted a 94th-minute penalty but it was a mere consolation for hosts Venezuela.

Argentina are second in the South American standings, provisionally three points off the pace, with Brazil in action against Chile, after extending their unbeaten streak to 21 matches.

Messi's miscued shot found the feet of Angel Di Maria in the 14th minute, but he was unable to clear his feet in time as his scooped effort was dealt with by Venezuela goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez, while Rodrigo De Paul hit the crossbar.

Di Maria found himself in space seven minutes later after Jose Velazquez slipped and had to be withdrawn due to injury, however the Argentina winger wasted the opportunity, his outside-of-the-boot pass overhit and out of Lautaro Martinez's reach at the back post.

The complexion of the match changed approaching the half-hour mark when Luis Martinez – who replaced Velazquez seven minutes earlier – was sent off.

Messi went to ground after receiving a high foot to the shin and the challenge, initially a yellow card, was upgraded to red after the referee consulted the pitch-side monitor following a VAR review.

Argentina – who enjoyed 82 per cent possession after Luis Martinez's dismissal – opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time with Lautaro Martinez tucking the ball past Farinez, having been played through by Giovani Lo Celso.

Venezuela pushed numbers forward and started to trouble Argentina's defence, Soteldo's deflected effort leaving Emiliano Martinez scrambling in the 68th minute as the shot flashed just wide of the post.

But Venezuela's hopes of a point were dashed when substitutes Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa struck within three minutes – the 71st and 74th minute – to put the result beyond doubt, though Soteldo's last-gasp spot-kick gave the home crowd something to celebrate.

 

What does it mean? 

After their memorable Copa success, Argentina continued where they left off on Thursday. Scaloni's men have not lost since July 2019 as they continue to build towards next year's World Cup.

Lautaro's away delights

Argentina forward Lautaro Martinez scored his third goal of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign. All of his goals have come away from home, with the South American giants winning all three of those games.

Venezuela's drought goes on

It was always going to be tough playing with a man less against Argentina. Now, Venezuela have gone seven matches without a win. Not since November 2020 have Venezuela celebrated a victory.

What's next?

Next up for Argentina is a mouth-watering Copa America final rematch against Brazil in a top-of-the-table clash in Sao Paulo on Sunday, while Venezuela travel to Peru on the same day.

Venezuela crashed out of the Copa America after they were beaten 1-0 by Peru in a forgettable final group game in Brasilia.

Starting the evening placed fifth out of five teams in Group B, Venezuela needed to better Ecuador's result against defending champions Brazil as they took on opponents whose place in the knockout stages already looked safe.

However, Jose Peseiro's Venezuela were beaten by Andre Carrillo's second-half strike while their rivals for qualification held the tournament hosts to a draw to progress instead.

And that meant an early end to a disappointing campaign for Venezuela that returned just two points from four group-stages fixtures.

An understandably tense start to proceedings featured few chances, with two Jefferson Savarino efforts from distance providing the closest glimpse of goal for either side.

The second of those in fact created a gilt-edged opportunity for Sergio Cordova, but the Venezuela forward somehow conspired to head wide when presented with an open goal after a Pedro Gallese save.

Peru grew into the game from there, with Gianluca Lapadula and Sergio Pena bringing saves out of Wuilker Farinez before the break.

And La Blanquirroja picked up where they left off after the restart, with Carrillo reacting quickest when the ball dropped from a corner to smash the ball into the roof of the net.

That goal meant Venezuela were heading for the exit, and even worse news from Goiania followed, with Ecuador equalising against Brazil to strengthen their own chances of progressing.

With Venezuela's situation looking desperate, Peseiro looked to his bench for inspiration, but his side struggled to create chances of note as they were held at arm's length for the remainder by deserving winners Peru.

 

What does it mean? Peru good value

Although anything but progress to the knockout stages would have been considered disappointing, Peru have perhaps done better than they expected in beating Colombia to second place in the group.

Ricardo Gareca's side claimed two wins and a draw from their four games, with their only defeat coming against the hosts Brazil. They will hope to keep that form strong for going deep into the knockout stages.

Cueva leads the way

Three key passes, one shot, five tackles and eight possession regains sum up an all-action performance from Peru midfielder Christian Cueva.

Cordova misses out

How different things could have been for Venezuela had Cordova not made a hash of that simple header early on – one of just two shots he managed across 78 minutes on the field.

What's next?

Peru's win secured them second place in Group B behind Brazil, setting up a meeting with the side that finishes third in Group A after the final round of fixtures are completed on Monday.

Peru need only to avoid defeat to make sure of progression to the Copa America quarter-finals when they face Venezuela on Sunday.

Under Ricardo Gareca, Peru have done an excellent job of not losing games in the Copa America, aside when they have faced Brazil.

They lost 4-0 to Brazil in their second Group B encounter but Peru are unbeaten in their last 10 Copa games against all other opponents, a run that stretches back to 2015.

Gareca's men made it all the way to the final in 2019, losing 3-1 to Brazil, but before they can think about a similar run this year Peru must ensure they do not suffer a slip-up against the tournament minnows.

Venezuela are bottom of the group but draws against Colombia and Ecuador have kept them in the hunt for progression.

Those draws came despite Venezuela having only 35 per cent of possession in the Colombia game and 31.2 per cent of the ball versus Ecuador.

But a point will not be enough for Venezuela to reach the knockouts, only a win will do if they are to reach the last eight for the third successive tournament.

To claim victory, Venezuela will need to maintain the clinical form they displayed in the second half against Ecuador, in which they scored from their only two shots on target of the period.

A win for Peru will see them finish second in the group, though that could mean a quarter-final meeting with the only other team to beat them in the Copa under Gareca, Chile, who were 2-1 winners in the 2015 semi-finals.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Peru - Christian Cueva

If Peru are to secure progression in style then the creative burden will likely fall on the shoulders of Cueva, who created two chances in their 2-2 draw with Ecuador last time out. He has six chances created in the tournament, though only one assist.

Venezuela - Edson Castillo

Midfielder Castillo was instrumental in Venezuela's draw with Ecuador. He had three shots, with two on target, scored their first equaliser and then teed up substitute Ronald Hernandez for a 91st-minute leveller.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- The last three meetings between Venezuela and Peru have ended level, two have finished 2-2 and they played out a goalless draw at the Copa America in 2019.

- Venezuela have just lost once in their last five Copa America games against sides not hosting the tournament, their only defeat came against Argentina in the 2019 quarter-finals.

- Venezuela are the team with the lowest average possession in the 2021 Copa America (35.1%). Three of the five games with the lowest possession were for Venezuela: v Ecuador (31.2%), v Colombia (35%) and v Brazil (38.3%).

- Peru have conceded the most goals in the group stage (7), with eliminated Bolivia second (6).

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 striker Luis Muriel expects Venezuela to be a fierce opponent as Reinaldo Rueda's side look to build on their opening victory in the Copa America.

Edwin Cardona scored the only goal of the game as Colombia kicked off their Group B campaign with a 1-0 win over Ecuador.

Los Cafeteros will be expected to win by a more handsome margin when they meet Venezuela in Goiania.

Colombia have not lost to Venezuela since the 2015 Copa America and face a side still missing key players after their squad was hit by a coronavirus outbreak prior to a 3-0 opening loss to Brazil.

But Muriel was impressed by what he saw from Venezuela even in defeat, and does not anticipate Colombia having it all their own way.

"The game against Ecuador was very difficult, the pitch helped little," Muriel told a media conference. 

"It helped them a lot in the pressure they exert. Venezuela lets you play a little more. 

"Venezuela showed despite all the casualties a great game against Brazil and against us it will be a fierce and hard game. 

"I strive every day to improve, we want to continue building a great team. We are going to seek the victory that will put us in the next phase."

Though Tomas Rincon and Romulo Otero are sidelined having contracted COVID-19, midfielder Yangel Herrera appears poised to return to the fold for Venezuela.

On loan from Manchester City, Herrera should help Venezuela break up play in midfield, having won possession 145 times for Granada last season, more than any other player for the LaLiga side.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Colombia - Miguel Borja

Borja supplied the assist for Cardona's winner and, if he keeps his place up front, should gain significant attention from the Venezuela defence given his goalscoring record in the Copa Libertadores this season.

He has scored six goals in eight games in this season's competition and, though his goals could not help Junior progress from the group stage, he has the firepower to help take Colombia deep into the knockout stages.

Venezuela - Cristian Casseres Jr

Arguably Venezuela's standout player in their defeat to Brazil, Casseres created two chances in the 3-0 loss and was also credited with two good crosses. The New York Red Bulls midfielder could be Venezuela's best creative outlet.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Colombia and Venezuela will meet again in a Copa America after two editions without facing each other (2016 and 2019). The record favours the Cafeteros (4W, 1L, 1D), but the Vinotinto won the last clash (1-0, in Chile 2015).

- Colombia are undefeated in six games without conceding goals in the Copa America (5W 1D). It is their third-longest unbeaten streak in the competition and the second-longest without conceding (eight, between 2001 and 2004).

- Venezuela will play their 10th Copa America match under the leadership of a European coach and will seek its first victory (2D, 7L). Jose Peseiro, Portuguese coach of the Vinotinto, is the third coach from Europe to lead Venezuela in the competition: the other two are Rafael Santana, from Spain, and Ratomir Dujkovic, from the former Yugoslavia.

- Venezuela had the fewest shots on target in the first matchday of the Copa America: in the loss against Brazil they shot at goal just once, through Luis del Pino.

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."

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.

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.

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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