Favorites falter, underdogs rise up in early stages of Copa America
Sooner or later, one of the seeds is going to wake up. At the moment the record of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay reads six games played, six games drawn. With Uruguay, in a tougher group and with fewer high-end resources, perhaps it's to be expected, but both Argentina and Brazil seem to be suffering from a surfeit of attacking talent.
Pretty much the only glimmer of joy for host Argentina so far is that Brazil has played even worse than it has. Against Paraguay on Saturday, Brazil was anxious. Jadson was far more effective than Robinho had been on the right of the front three in the opening game, and once he had scored, there were about 10 minutes when Brazil seemed to be in control and enjoying its football. There was even scope from a brilliant piece of skill from Ganso, slowly feeling his way into the playmaking role in the national setup, flicking the ball over the head of Aureliano Torres and running around the other side to collect.
Half-time, though, checked Brazil's momentum, and the removal of Jadson -- seemingly because Mano Menezes was concerned he would collect a second yellow card -- for Elano led to a loss of balance in the attacking third. It felt, in a way, like a return to the defensive 4-2-2-2 of Dunga, only without the effectiveness.
Dani Alves, already troubled by Paraguay's lively left-winger Marcelo Estigarribia, played as though set on proving that it's not only Lionel Messi who looks a diminished player away from the Barcelona structure. There's a seeming paradox that at Barcelona, Dani Alves is always pushing forward and yet somehow never leaves space behind him, partly because he is so quick, and partly because a center back is able to drift over to cover him as the holding midfielder drops in to become an extra defender.
Without that support, though, he is often caught too high up the field, which is probably why Dunga preferred the more defensively sound Maicon. Both Paraguay goals were to an extent Dani Alves' fault, caught dozing for the first -- although he can legitimately wonder why Lucio and Thiago Silva were drawn so intemperately toward the ball -- and then dispossessed by Cristian Riveros for the second.
In the end, Brazil was saved by a moment of individual brilliance from Ganso, helping the ball around the corner with just the right amount of spin for it to arc into Fred's path and sit up for him to slightly mishit the ball into the bottom corner. A poor Ecuador shouldn't provide too much opposition in the third group game, but the lack of cohesion remains a concern.
Peru finished at the bottom of South American World Cup qualifying, and few gave it much chance in Argentina. Even with Mexico's woes -- a team weakened by age restrictions, failed drugs tests and allegations of using prostitutes -- it seemed a tossup who would finish third in Group C.
But under Sergio Markarian, an itinerant 66-year-old Uruguayan with a bald-domed head, glasses and a wonky smile, it has found new resolve. There is nothing particularly radical about his formation, a 4-4-1-1 with Luis Advincula playing off Paolo Guerrero, and it says much about the quality of Peruvian football that only four of the squad play in Europe, but it is well-organized and has enough creativity to cause opponents problems.
Guerrero is a combative, industrious frontman; Advincula a tricky second striker; and, in Juan Vargas Peru has a left-sided midfielder of energy and genuine quality, even if he is inconsistent. He was the catalyst to the 1-0 win over Mexico -- not the most eye-catching result, perhaps, but the performance was much better than the score line might suggest, as Peru twice hit the woodwork.
Four points will almost certainly be enough to book its place in the quarterfinal, and while it would be a major surprise if Peru got further than that, performances so far have already been enough to restore self-belief and suggest that World Cup qualification might not be beyond them.
Jujuy last Thursday was a festival of Bolivianness. The northwestern city is home to thousands of Bolivian immigrants and became temporary home to hundreds more pouring across the border. Many fans wore not the national shirt but national dress -- pollera skirts, bowler hats and ponchos. The pavements were strewed with chewed coca-leaves. This was supposed to be a Bolivian celebration.
It had been offered up to the hosts in the opening game, seemingly as a sacrificial lamb, for the fourth time in five tournaments and -- for the fourth time -- it had secured a draw. With a second-string Costa Rica to play on what was effectively home soil, there was an expectation of a win and qualification for the quarterfinals for the first time since 1997 and only the second time ever on foreign soil.
Was Bolivia complacent? Perhaps. After a strangely patchy first half, it ended up being undone by Joel Campbell, the much-hyped 19-year-old Saprissa center forward who had disappointed until then in the tournament. Switched to the left, he was devastating. Bolivia lost its discipline, had two men sent off, and was lucky in the end to lose only 2-0 as Costa Rica missed a penalty and twice hit the woodwork. As so often in the past, it proved capable of defending against a grandee, when defending was the prime objective, but was then unable to play a more balanced game when it had to start thinking about taking the game to an opponent.
Venezuela faced a similar potential problem against Ecuador, but it had enough attacking quality to win 1-0 with a stunning strike from Cesar Gonzalez. The Gimnasia La Plata winger had impressed against Brazil, but then he had space in front of him every time he received the ball -- the nature of the game, sitting deep and trying to spring a counter, meant it was relatively easy to impress.
Here he was more tightly marked, but was just as effective. His finish, smacked first time from 25 yards, was struck so sweetly the Ecuador goalkeeper, Marceloa Elizaga, didn't even move as it flashed past him. There were promising moments from Juan Arango and Giancarlo Maldonado as well, while Tomas Rincon again caught the eye at the back of midfield, and Oswaldo Vizcarradno was commanding at center-back. A little context is required: this was only the third Copa America match Venezuela has ever won, but of the two traditional whipping boys of South American football, the vinotintos have a pretty clear edge.