Uruguay are one of the favourites for this year’s Copa America but they will need to come through a tricky group to make the knockout phase.
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda
Captain: Gary Medel
Key player: Alexis Sánchez
One to watch: Diego Valdés
Despite winning the last two editions of the Copa América – defeating Argentina on penalties on both occasions – Chile come in to this year’s tournament with slim hopes of lifting the trophy again.
The golden generation, the greatest Chilean national side of all time, having won two Copas in succession and reaching the knockout stage in two successive world cups, have failed to breed in new talent, and as a result are in a massive transitional period which culminated in failure to even qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Since taking over in January 2018, Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda has had an underwhelming start as coach, winning only five and losing four of his 12 games in charge, showcasing the massive drop in form of this aging side.
In goal, arguably the greatest Chilean goalkeeper of all time, Claudio Bravo, has retired from international duty, meaning one of the inexperienced Gabriel Arias, Brayan Cortés or Yerko Urra will keep goal for them, who have a combined total of seven caps between them.
In defence, they can still call upon the reliable captain Gary Medel, as well as Mauricio Isla, Jean Beausejour and Gonzalo Jara, all of whom were present for the two Copa victories.
However, these four players have a combined age of 130. The other defenders brought to Brazil are all under the age of 30, but do not have the experience at this level that would fill one with encouragement when coming up against the fellow heavyweights, such as the game against Uruguay in this group on June 25th.
Their attack is where Chile can take some optimism, but even then it is not much.
Midfielders such as Arturo Vidal and Charles Aránguiz do have an eye for goal, while Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sánchez still lead the line, who have a combined total of 76 goals between them for ‘La Roja’.
But, much like the rest of their team, it is the lack of true quality depth that worries me.
You would wonder if the last two editions of this tournament have taken too much out of this Chile side, where 240 minutes and two penalty shoot-outs against the greatest Argentina side since 1994 may have been too much mentally and emotionally, with many players, such as Sánchez at Manchester United, simply not being the same since lifting the trophy.
They should beat Ecuador and edge out Japan, but will finish second-best to a strong Uruguay side, where a quarter-final showdown opposite either Argentina or Colombia will prove too much for a brave, but under-equipped, Chile side.
Manager: Hernán Darío Gómez
Captain: Antonio Valencia
Key player: Enner Valencia
One to watch: Jefferson Intriago
There is not much promise surrounding this Ecuadorian side heading into the tournament, and it would not be a surprise to see Japan pip them to third place.
They have only reached the last-16 of the World Cup once, and are one of only two CONMEBOL nations to never win this tournament, the other being Venezuela, and there is no chance that that will change here.
Since 63-year-old head coach Hernán Darío Gómez took over in August of last year, their record against smaller nations has been positive, but when faced with tougher opposition, they have lost on all three occasions, with the losses reading 4-3, 1-0 and 3-2, to Qatar, the United States of America and Mexico, respectively.
Amid these games, they have won four times, but three of those were against Jamaica, Panama and Guatemala, with a 0-2 win over a second string Peru side not a good gauge of the nation’s South American standard.
One positive for the Ecuadorians to take to Brazil is that they can score goals, with 14 coming in the 10 games under their new coach, but on the other hand they concede too often against the bigger sides, meaning their hopes of challenging Uruguay and Chile in the group are slim.
Players such as Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and their centre-forward Enner Valencia, currently of Tigres and formerly West Ham and Everton, add some star power to the side, while young midfielders such as Jefferson Intriago provide the team with something different going forward and in defence.
However, the vast majority of the 23 brought to Brazil ply their trade in the Ecuadorian league or in lower leagues across the continent, which means they will likely be in for a tough and long three matches here.
Manager: Hajime Moriyasu
Captain: Shinji Okasaki
Key player: Shinji Okasaki
One to watch: Takefusa Kubo
Much like Qatar, Japan are not from the continent and arrive in Brazil as one of the invited guest nations, but unlike Qatar, Japan are not making their tournament debut, having appeared in the 1999 edition, where they lost all of their three games bar one, where they managed a 1-1 draw with Ecuador.
It is interesting that the two invited nations finished as champion (Qatar) and runner-up (Japan) in the 2019 Asian Cup, meaning that both sides can compete.
Much akin to their fellow invitees, Japan have brought a vastly youthful and energetic side to this years Copa América, with only goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and Leicester City centre-forward Shinji Okasaki being over the age of 27, and 19 of the 23 being under the age of 25.
In what is perhaps the most competitive group in the tournament, the majority of the nation’s hopes will fall on the shoulders of Okasaki, who is also the sides captain, and has 50 goals in 116 internationals.
While experienced goalkeeper Kawashima will rely on his five man defence – or three, depending on how you view the wing-backs – to give him as much protection as possible.
However, what is arguably the most intriguing aspect about this Japanese side is young 18 year old attacking midfielder Takefusa Kubo.
The youngster signed for Barcelona in 2011, but do to the legal action taken against the club for signing underage players, he was forced to leave, and joins Real Madrid on July 1st.
If Japan defend well enough against Uruguay and Chile and can then sneak a win against Ecuador, they could possibly qualify as one of the two best third-placed teams, although they are likely to face stern competition from Venezuela, Paraguay and Qatar in that regard.
Manager: Óscar Tabárez
Captain: Diego Godín
Key player: Luis Suárez
One to watch: Rodrigo Bentancur
For those that are not entirely convinced about the quality of the current Argentina side, this Uruguayan outfit are many people’s choice to take the throne from Brazil and win their record 16th Copa América in the Estadio do Maracanã on July 7th.
After all, they do have some history in that ground, as Brazil learned in the most painful way possible in the 1950 World Cup final.
For all the talk of this side playing beautiful football in the ‘Uruguayan’ way, the style that was formed during the 1920s when the nation was locked in an intense rivalry with Argentina which culminated in the 1930 World Cup final, a match Uruguay won 4-2, it is absolute nonsense.
Tabárez sets his side up in a way that makes them difficult to break down, while they look to counter the opposition on the break, which has so far earned them a fourth-placed finish in the 2010 World Cup, and them winning this tournament in 2011, defeating Paraguay in the final.
However, despite the success, not many in Uruguay agree with the old fashioned style of play, leading to the nickname ‘dinosaurio’ for the coach.
Between the sticks, the ever reliable Fernando Muslera has retained his place, while the defence of Martín Cáceres, captain Diego Godín, José María Giménez and Diego Laxalt form arguably the most formidable and toughest defence on the continent.
In midfield, much like Diego Simeone, Tabárez does not use them for width.
Instead, the four of Matías Vecino, Nahitan Nández, Lucas Torreira and Rodrigo Bentancur sit narrow to give the defence more cover, while one or two will break from the four and attack when the chance arises.
Further forward, the fearsome duo of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani lead the line, who have a combined 101 goals between them, and they are backed up by the capable Christian Stuani and Maxi Gómez.
Not only do Cavani and Suárez provide tons of goals, but the coaches use of Cavani defensively has contributed to Uruguay’s excellent record at the back.
When they are under pressure, Cavani drops wide into midfield, to create a 4-5-1 formation, which not only makes Uruguay tighter and narrower, but also gives them an attacking outlet on the counter-attack down the wing.
This was evident with Cavani’s second goal vs Portugal at the 2018 World Cup, where he found space in behind Portugal’s right-back to place a shot past Rui Patrício.
Uruguay, barring an absolute disaster, will win all three group games, where they should then beat the third-placed team they are drawn with in the quarter-finals.
From there, a showdown with Argentina or Colombia is most likely, which, should they win, would give them an incredible boost heading into the final, although it is worth noting that every Copa América that they have hosted, Brazil have won.