Five players to watch at the 2021 Copa America

Lost to many football fans among the excitement of Euro 2020 is the South American equivalent, the Copa America, which is due to start on Sunday June 13th. Brazil are the current holders and favourites to retain their crown despite inevitable challenges from the usual suspects like Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay.

Remarkably, up until a couple of days ago, the location of the tournament was still in doubt. Original hosts Colombia were forced to relinquish hosting duties in mid-May due to political unrest in the country, whilst their stand-ins Argentina were also not fit to host due to increasing challenges presented by COVID–19.

All is not lost however as it looks as though a tournament will take place. Brazil have stepped up to the plate to host despite controversies and criticisms of their own.

The usual suspects of Messi, Aguero, Neymar, Cavani, Suarez et al will no doubt grab most headlines yet there are several talents who may go under the radar during this summer’s tournament.

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Josef Martinez (Venezuela)

This man scores goals. The Venezuelan has played 100 games in the MLS for club Atlanta United and scored a breath-taking 94 goals. His goal scoring haul in the MLS has resulted in numerous records, such as record number of hat tricks and most consecutive games scored in.

Generally occupying a lone striker role at club level, the diminutive attacker couple’s his combativeness with a cool head in front of goal and has drawn comparisons to former Argentinian marksman Carlos Tevez. Spells in Italy with Torino and in Swiss football were ultimately unsuccessful before a move to Atlanta in 2017.

Martinez does however come into the tournament on the back of a long injury lay-off, having missed the entire 2020 MLS season with an ACL injury. That said, he is back fit and firing for his club with four goals in seven games so far this campaign.

At 28, it is unlikely that Martinez will be making clubs across Europe sit up and take notice although he had attracted interest from England, Spain and France prior to his injury. His international record works out at roughly a goal every four or so games, but this is usually down to Venezuelan record goal scorer Salomon Rondon occupying the main striking role.

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Gonzalo Plata (Ecuador)

Sporting Lisbon won their first Portuguese title this season in 19 years. Amongst their glut of young talent is Ecuadorian winger Gonzalo Plata. Granted, Plata was not a major part of their title success with just 14 appearances throughout the season, however he did come off the bench in their crowning victory against Maritimo and find the net.

At just 20, Plata has become a regular in recent times for his country appearing in all four World Cup qualifiers to date, scoring twice and receiving his marching orders for two yellow card offences in a 6-1 destruction of Colombia.

Plata has starred on the big stage for his country before, picking up the Bronze Ball award (third best player) at the 2019 U-20 World Cup in Poland. Plata and Ecuador exceeded expectations on reaching the semi-finals and beating the likes of Mexico, Uruguay, Italy and the USA on their way to a third placed finish.

Copa America 2021 could potentially be a breakout tournament for Plata before he tackles the Champions League with Sporting next season.

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Luis Diaz (Colombia)

Diaz has been in fine form since his move to Porto in 2019. The Portuguese giants fought off competition and signed him from Atletico Junior in his homeland. Compatriots James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao also endorsed the move to Diaz himself.

The attacker has made 97 competitive appearances for Porto and chipped in with 25 goals and 13 assists, predominantly from a left-wing position. Diaz picked up a league and cup double in his first season in Portugal, prompting interest from Spurs, and was on the scoresheet against both Man City and Marseille in this year’s Champions League.

At international level, Diaz has played in recent humbling defeats to both Uruguay and Ecuador and along with his countrymen will be hoping to make amends for recent poor form in the tournament.

Recent poor form as been compounded by the hosting of the tournament being removed Colombia, whilst another dark cloud has emerged over their camp. Everton midfielder and arguably Colombia’s best player James Rodriguez was not selected for the tournament due to injury, something which James has disputed.

Despite all of this, Colombia are still 6/1 third favourites with the bookies so performances from the likes of Diaz will be instrumental to any success Los Cafeteros may have.

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Fede Valverde (Uruguay)

Valverde will be probably the most well-known of this list. The Real Madrid midfielder has been a key part of Zinedine Zidane’s second stint as Real Madrid manager as either an auxiliary right back at times or as an able replacement in midfield for one of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric or Casemiro. In fact, Valverde is probably most comfortable in a similar type of holding role as the latter.

Like Plata, Valverde has history in the U-20 World Cup winning the Silver Ball (2nd best player) at the 2017 tournament where the Uruguayans finished 4th. He has since been promoted to the senior ranks with Uruguay and forms a vital midfield pairing with Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, who could easily have featured in this piece in his own right.

Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have both had excellent seasons from a goalscoring perspective, with Suarez fielding somewhat of a resurgence after being dumped by Barcelona last summer. Both frontmen however are reaching the autumn of their careers along with defensive stalwart Diego Godin, so if the 2011 winners are to challenge, they may just rely on the Valverde – Bentancur partnership to see them through.

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Gonzalo Montiel (Argentina)

24-year-old right back Montiel is a favourite of Argentinian coach Lionel Scaloni, also a right back in his playing days. Montiel plays with Argentine giants River Plate and has established himself in the team since his debut in 2016, winning five major honours in that time.

Most comfortable on the right of a four, he has played further forward as a wing back or right sided centre-back in a back three and has been lauded for his tenacity and his defensive positioning. Going forward, Montiel’s passing and crossing ability is an asset which may explain why he is now a regular fixture for both club and country.

Montiel has started all but one of the World Cup Qualifiers to date, missing out recently against Chile due to a false positive test. That issue does seem to be resolved now and it is expected Montiel will be in the starting line-up for the Argentines in their opener against the Chileans on Monday.

Montiel has attracted huge interest from Europe with the likes of AS Roma and Lyon monitoring his situation whilst West Ham seemed set to complete a move in January before it broke down at the end of the window. Interest is still high, and this tournament may be the ideal shop window for the man voted in the 2020 Copa Libertadores Team of the Year.

The Author

Damien Byrne

St Pat's and Arsenal fan. Writing about things around the world of football that catch my eye.

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