Who starred at the 2015 Copa America? James Young on Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and the other standouts after a month in Chile.
This year’s Copa America in Chile provided a month of gripping drama. There was no shortage of the bad and the ugly–Neymar’s tantrum against Colombia, the Arturo Vidal drunk-driving episode, and Gonzalo Jara’s prison yard provocation of Edinson Cavani–plus an atmosphere of simmering rowdiness at some games as intense local rivalries threatened to boil over.
But there was plenty of good too. The vivid attacking play of the victorious host nation, which captured its first major international title; a handful of sparkling performances from Lionel Messi and Argentina; and the surprise success of an admirable Peru side, to name but a few.
Here is our Best XI of the tournament, playing in a loose 4-3-3 formation:
GOALKEEPER: David Ospina (Colombia)
On the basis that the spectacular trumps the solid every time, Colombia goalkeeper Ospina just edged out Chile’s Claudio Bravo for the No. 1 jersey.
Bravo played well throughout, but the greater collective strength of his team meant that he rarely had the opportunity to perform the miracles that Ospina produced in Colombia’s dramatic quarterfinal loss against Argentina. The Arsenal stopper was phenomenal in that game (adding to his earlier good work in a group game against Brazil) displaying bravery, strength and agility, and capping his night with a spectacular double save from Aguero and then Messi.
The Barcelona genius’s disbelieving head on hands reaction afterwards told the story. “I wanted to die,” he said following the game.
LEFT BACK: Filipe Luis (Brazil)
It was another disappointing tournament from Brazil, but amidst the hand-wringing over the team’s attacking woes and the continuing defensive wobbles of Thiago Silva, Filipe Luis was at least one bright spot. The Chelsea man brings greater stability than his predecessor Marcelo, but is also an attacking option – when Dunga’s side struggled for creative ideas, Luis was always on hand to carry the ball upfield.
CENTER BACK: Jeison Murillo (Colombia)
On the basis of Murillo's Copa America performances, Inter Milan has done some excellent business in snapping up the 23-year-old central defender for just €8 million. In Chile, Murillo showed himself to be not only quick and strong, but also an astute reader of the game. He was a key part of a courageous backs-to-the-wall display against Argentina, and also brought the ball forward smoothly and intelligently when the opportunity arose.
CENTER BACK: Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina)
Much has been made of Argentina’s perceived defensive shakiness, but the fact is Gerardo Martino’s team conceded only one goal in the five games that followed a wobbly 2-2 tie with Paraguay in its opening fixture (with that one goal coming against Paraguay in the semifinals). Much of that was down to the rugged yet composed Otamendi, nicknamed monstro during his time at Atletico Mineiro in Brazil. Just edged out Chile’s sturdy braveheart Gary Medel.
RIGHT BACK: Luis Advincula (Peru)
Along with Paolo Guerrero’s goals, one of the main reasons behind Peru’s impressive second straight third-place campaign was the play of central defender Carlos Ascues and his teammate, Advincula, who combined a satisfying blend of attacking pace and verve with defensive diligence and strength. His best performance came when he not only largely nullified Chile’s Alexis Sanchez in the semifinal, but also fired in the cross from which Gary Medel’s own goal gave Peru its equalizer.
MIDFIELD: Charles Aranguiz (Chile)
Despite stiff competition from his more attention-grabbing teammate Arturo Vidal, the polished Aranguiz, who plays for Brazilian side Internacional, gets the nod for his remarkable consistency.
Nominally a defensive midfielder, Aranguiz performed comfortably all over the pitch, whether he was calmly breaking up opposition forays into Chilean territory, getting forward to join Jorge Sampaoli’s ensemble approach to attacking (he scored twice against Bolivia) or building a move from further back with his neat, unhurried passing.
On this form, a move to a top European league is surely imminent.
MIDFIELD: Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
While reaching a final is never to be sniffed at, Argentina’s ongoing trophy drought, coupled with last year’s World Cup final loss to Germany, means a sense of disappointment will linger over the team’s campaign in Chile.
Mascherano, in particular, deserves better. Despite looking uncharacteristically perplexed at his team’s defensive meltdown in the second half of the opening 2-2 tie with Paraguay, he was his usual peerless self for the rest of the tournament, dictating the game like an NFL quarterback with his passing, and effectively marshaling the defenders behind him.
MIDFIELD: Jorge Valdivia (Chile)
Valdivia was the Copa America’s Prince–supremely talented, but often more than a little wayward in his creative choices. His nimbleness, speed and sleight of foot made him a vibrant, metronomic presence amidst the bewildering speed and movement of the Chilean attack, yet time and time again his final ball would frustratingly fall an inch or two behind his intended target, or be nicked away by a defender’s outstretched boot.
Nonetheless, Valdivia’s vivacity, and the coolness he showed when setting up Mauricio Isla’s late winner in the quarterfinal against Uruguay, just about earns him his spot in this team. If he showed such composure on a regular basis, a world class talent might yet emerge.
FORWARD: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
“I can write the saddest verses tonight”, wrote the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and after another galling defeat it is impossible not to see Messi’s so far unfulfilled international career as tragedy, compared to the high, glorious comedy of his exploits with Barcelona.
Taken on their own merits, however, Messi’s performances in Chile were outstanding. There were a number of scintillating attacking moments in the quarterfinal and even amidst a generally low-key showing in the final, and a romping, joyous display against Paraguay in the semi, when he seemed entirely unburdened of the pressure heaped upon him. Some have described it as his best performance in an international shirt.
FORWARD: Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
Following his two vital goals against Peru in the semifinal, there was a temptation to give this spot to Eduardo Vargas over Sanchez, who scored only once (in spectacular fashion), but overall few could touch the Arsenal man for sustained effort. Despite clearly feeling the effects of a draining first season in the Premier League, Sanchez was a tireless spark plug up front, providing pace, power and creativity every time he came near the ball.
FORWARD: Paolo Guerrero (Peru)
A month ago not many would have picked Guerrero as one of the potential stars of this Copa America, but Brazilian club Flamengo’s new signing had a magnificent tournament. Big, strong and fast, the leggy Guerrero was a constant worry for opposing defenses, and gave eventual winner and host Chile a torrid time during his country’s brave loss in the semifinal.
Perhaps Guerrero’s four goals should not have come as such a surprise, however. He he has a knack of delivering on the big stage, scoring five times at the 2011 Copa America and grabbing the winning goal for Corinthians against Chelsea in the FIFA Club World Cup final in 2012.