Hosts out to break Brazil stranglehold
It just doesn't stop, this footballing year in Argentina. Gimnasia played the second leg of their own relegation playoff on Thursday night, after which the domestic season ended, and you might think after Velez Sarsfield's title win, Martin Palermo's retirement at Boca Juniors, and River Plate's historic relegation, that the country would be looking forward to a nice break. Not a bit of it. Because Friday night sees the opening game of the 2011 Copa America.
The atmosphere in Buenos Aires is a funny one though, owing largely to the fact that the city won't be hosting any of the tournament, with the exception of the final at River's Estadio Monumental. Argentine football is going through a process of 'decentralisation', with more clubs than seemingly ever before in next season's top flight from outside the capital, and the organisation of the Copa America seeks to help that process.
As such, there will be games played in the northern provinces of Salta and Jujuy, the wine-growing region of Mendoza and San Juan, as well as Cordoba (home of Belgrano, the club who gained promotion at River Plate's expense on Sunday), Santa Fe, and the main host city La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires Province, where the opening game will be played on Friday night.
The tournament that became the Campeonato Sudamericano was first officially played in Argentina in 1916, so this year is its 95th anniversary. Since then, it's been played in all ten CONMEBOL member nations, with Venezuela's first hosting being the most recent edition, in 2007. The hosts this time round will have rather higher expectations than Venezuela did back then, not least because this Copa represents what many see as a vital chance for Argentina to finally end an 18-year trophy drought at senior level since they lifted the 1993 Copa in Ecuador.
Brazil have won the last two Copas at a canter, and travel as ever with a physically imposing squad and plenty of pace up front in the form of newly-crowned Copa Libertadores champion Neymar (not to mention the craft of his Santos clubmate Ganso). The final most expect on July 24 is, of course, them against the hosts. In the last two Copas (2004 in Peru and 2007 in Venezuela), Brazil have won the final, on both occasions against an Argentine side who'd looked the best team in the tournament until that point.
This time, Argentina start as favourites. Aside from home advantage, they've a far better balanced midfield than they had under Diego Maradona in last year's World Cup, and have surely more depth up front than anyone else. Is there another national side in the world which could leave Sergio Aguero out of a three-man frontline, without a flicker of discontent from anyone? And while Brazil have a fantastically promising talent leading their line, Argentina have Lionel Messi, a player for whom an impressive tournament would be just one more step on the road to recognition as one of the greatest attackers of all time - and who's determined to do well.
The doubts come at the back, where Argentina look potentially leaden-footed against fast opponents. Should they meet Brazil in the final, the onus ought to be on the midfield to cut off supply to Neymar, rather than trying to deal with him in one-on-ones.
That's already looking to the end of what has the potential to be the most open Copa in a while, though, with a number of other sides looking stronger and more confident than they have for a while. Chile, Paraguay and most notably Uruguay have all raised expectations following last year's World Cup. Chile are something of an unknown, still bedding into life under Claudio Borghi after Marcelo Bielsa's resignation in January, but Paraguay have worked out their attacking strategy now, having had a year more to get used to life without Salvador Cabanas, and Uruguay have continued their good form from South Africa 2010.
Uruguay are probably in with the best chance of breaking up the Argentina v Brazil final. In both of the last two Copas they've taken Brazil to penalties in the semi-finals, and they're a better side now than they were in either of those. Assuming Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay all win their groups, and progress through the tournament, Uruguay will meet Brazil in... yep... the semis.
Whilst last year's World Cup participants all go in with hopes of reaching the latter stages, perhaps the side most likely to spring a true surprise - by going far rather than winning the whole thing - is Colombia. They were a little unfortunate to narrowly miss out on the World Cup qualifying playoff spot to Uruguay, and several of their players seem to be maturing at the same time.
All of Europe has seen during the Europa League what Radamel Falcao García can do up front, as well as his clubmate Fredy Guarín in midfield, and they'll be joined by Hugo Rodallega and a striker who feels at home in Argentina; Racing's Teofilo Gutierrez finished joint top scorer in Argentina's top flight during the Torneo Clausura, in spite of not playing the final round due to his call-up.
With Ecuador also likely to be challenging opponents, the talent spread at this Copa is perhaps broader than at any recent edition. Costa Rica (Japan's late replacements) and Mexico, the invited participants, will field Under-23 sides, and Mexico's preparations have been thrown into serious turmoil by the news on Tuesday that eight members of their squad have been sent home for having prostitutes in their hotel with them before leaving their training camp in Ecuador.
The ups and downs will be on the pitch, though, once the tournament gets underway, and an eager continent waits to see who its next champions will be. Though Argentina are favourites, I wonder whether Brazil may still have the psychological edge over their great rivals. It's going to be fun finding out.
• To celebrate ESPN's coverage of the Copa America 2011, we're giving you the chance to win tickets for you and three friends to see Arsenal battle the New York Red Bulls and Paris Saint-Germain in the Emirates Cup.