x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Levelling out the Copa America field

Brazil or Argentina may still win the Copa America, but they are no longer clear favourites in the South American championship after a week of lacklustre play.

Brazil or Argentina may still win the Copa America, but they are no longer clear favourites in the South American championship after a week of lacklustre play.

Fred, a substitute, saved Brazil on Saturday, scoring an 89th-minute goal to salvage a 2-2 draw with Paraguay in Group B. That leaves Brazil with two draws in their first two matches, the same as Argentina.

In Saturday's other Group B match, Venezuela beat Ecuador 1-0 through Cesar Gonzalez's 61st-minute goal. Venezuela lead the group with four points — a surprise for a country better known for baseball than football.

Venezuela's victory means that, with one round remaining before last night's match between Colombia and Bolivia in Group A, all 12 teams still had a mathematical chance of reaching the quarter-finals.

At that point, almost anything might happen en route to the July 24 final with Colombia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay or Venezuela all in the mix.

Few expected the tournament to be this even. Seven of the first 12 matches have been draws.

This is the 43rd edition, and Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina have won it 36 times between them. Brazil have won the last two - and four of the last five. But this year is very different. Fred even called the draw "a good result".

"It showed us how difficult it is to play against these other teams," the Brazil striker said.

Parity has arrived. For the first time in the history of the tournament, the trio of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have failed to win at least one game among them in the first two matches.

"It's better to win the group than finish second," Hernan Dario Gomez, the Colombia coach, said before his match last night. "But it really doesn't matter in terms of the kind of opponent we might meet."

Argentina face a giant test today when they play Costa Rica in Group A. Under normal conditions, Argentina would be huge favourites. Playing as a guest from the Concacaf region, Costa Rica are fielding what amounts to a second string - an Olympic-style, Under 23 team. Mexico are doing the same. They both played their best team in the Gold Cup in June in the United States.

The Ticos should be no match for Argentina, who are led by the world's best player, Lionel Messi, and a cast that includes forwards such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Angel Di Maria.

But Messi has done little, Argentina have had few scoring chances, and his teammates have tried to protect him from criticism. On Friday his father, Jorge, said his son was under "terrible pressure" playing in Argentina and expected to deliver the country their first major trophy since 1993. "Leo is really down about this," his father said.

Messi, for his part, is confident things will fall into place tonight.

"I feel fine and I am really up for it. I am confident the team will qualify. We'll pull it out," the 24 year old told sports daily Ole.

Sergio Batista, the coach, is still speaking confidently, despite Argentina failing to ignite so far.

"I see Argentina playing in the final," Batista said. "I have the same conviction I had before the tournament began. The attitude is the same. It's true that this was not expected. The team is still ready to turn around the situation and approach every match like a final."

Batista is likely to start Higuain, Aguero and Di Maria up front, replacing Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi and either Ever Banega or Esteban Cambiasso.