10 players worth watching at the Copa America
Football eyes fell on South America last summer when Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup. Twelve months later the continent is set to capture plenty of attention again, with Chile kicking off the 44th edition of the Copa America against Ecuador in the early hours of Friday morning (00:30 BST).
Lionel Messi, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez and James Rodriguez are just some of the superstars who’ll be involved over the next three weeks, but look a little closer and there are interesting stories to be found everywhere.
Here are 10 other players to keep tabs on…
Nicolas Otamendi (27, Argentina)
Argentina are the pre-tournament favourites but, while the Albiceleste are blessed with a whole host of world-class attackers – Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi make for a mouth-watering sextet – doubts remain about their defensive capabilities.
Valencia’s Otamendi, an aggressive and rugged centre-back, is perhaps not as glamorous as the above names but nevertheless performs a vital function for his side. The 27-year-old will also want to show apparent admirers Manchester United that he’s the man to bring them greater solidity next term.
Roberto Firmino (23, Brazil)
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World Cup scapegoat Fred has long been discarded, with Firmino now involved to help offer inspiration at the sharp end. The 23-year-old plays his club football for Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, and has netted twice in five international appearances to date.
Firmino isn’t an out-and-out centre-forward, but a player who likes to drop deep and get involved in build-up play. Thus, he’ll be judged on how well he links up with Neymar as much as his own goalscoring tally.
Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City are all allegedly interested in the former Figueirense attacking midfielder, and a good Copa America could persuade the Premier League’s elite to make Hoffenheim an offer that’s too good to refuse.
Juan Arango (35, Venezuela)
This will be free-kick king Arango’s sixth Copa America as Venezuela attempt to match their impressive and unexpected run to the last four in 2011.
Arango is Venezuela’s most-capped player (121 appearances and counting) and played a significant part in the recent growth of football in the nation, helping to raise the game’s profile by spending a decade in two European top flights with Mallorca and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Now 35, the attacking midfielder will be hoping to go out on a high in what will surely be his final taste of South America’s continental competition. He's got the goals in him to finish with a bang.
Jose Gimenez (20, Uruguay)
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When Miranda was ruled out of action with a grade-two hamstring tear in November, Atletico Madrid fans were understandably worried. However, the displays of 20-year-old replacement Gimenez at the heart of the backline soon assuaged all fears, the young centre-back exuding authority throughout an excellent breakthrough season in Spain.
With Luis Suarez still suspended after his infamous bite on Giorgio Chiellini, Uruguay may have to rely on their traditional traits of doggedness and resolute defending to triumph in Chile. To that end, the partnership of Gimenez and his Atletico sidekick Diego Godin at the back will be crucial.
Charles Aranguiz (26, Chile)
Aranguiz - energetic, dynamic and full of running - embodies Chile’s high-tempo style of play and is vital to the balance of Jorge Sampaoli’s side. They'll need him on song more than ever here as they look to win the Copa America for the first time in 99 years of trying. Currently playing for Internacional in Brazil, Aranguiz admitted it would be a “dream” to move to Arsenal after the Gunners were linked with the £5 million rated midfielder in March. International glory could see other top European clubs join the battle for his signature.
Robinho (31, Brazil)
The former Real Madrid and Manchester City forward’s time in Europe appears to have come to an end, with the 31-year-old expected to complete a permanent move from Milan back to boyhood club Santos this summer. Robinho was trialled in a false nine role by former coach Luis Felipe Scolari ahead of last year’s World Cup, but didn’t make the Seleçao’s final squad. Current boss Dunga gave him a prominent role during his former stint in charge between 2006 and 2010, though, and has decided to include him among his party of 23 this time around. He won’t start, but it will be intriguing to see if Robinho can go some way towards shaking off the sense of frustration that’s surrounded his career.
Renato Ibarra (24, Ecuador)
Captain Antonio Valencia’s absence through injury is a major blow for Ecuador, who will nevertheless be quietly confident of springing a few surprises in Chile. Gustavo Quinteros’s outfit are strong down the flanks and dangerous on the counter-attack, making Ibarra – Valencia’s likely deputy on the right – a key man.
Full of pace and trickery, the Vitesse Arnhem winger has been heavily linked with a move to Swansea, for whom international team-mate and fellow wide man Jefferson Montero already plies his trade.
Carlos Bacca (28, Colombia)
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Bacca will almost certainly start for Colombia at the Copa America despite los Cafeteros’ embarrassment of attacking riches.
It’s testament to his superb season at Sevilla - his best-ever campaign, in fact, with the 28-year-old having notched 28 goals in all competitions as Unai Emery’s side broke the club’s all-time La Liga points record and won their fourth Europa League title in 10 years. Bacca will likely play alongside Radamel Falcao in a 4-4-2, but he’s also capable of leading the line on his own. Rumoured suitors Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United will be paying close attention to how he gets on.
Cristian Benavente (21, Peru)
Born in Spain to a Spanish father and Peruvian mother, 21-year-old Benavente has been on Real Madrid’s books since the age of eight but hasn’t yet featured for the Spanish giants.
The attacking playmaker is likely to start in the No.10 role in Ricardo Gareca’s 4-2-3-1 configuration, and will be charged with providing the ammunition for Flamengo striker Paolo Guerrero.
Whether he will ever make a first-team appearance for los Blancos is doubtful: West Brom are reportedly on the brink of bringing Benavente to The Hawthorns for around £3.5 million.
Rafael Marquez (36, Mexico)
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The centre-back’s fine career has seen him win seven league titles, two Champions Leagues and two Gold Cups, but this Copa America is likely to be the former Barcelona and Monaco’s man final tournament appearance.
Marquez will captain a young and experimental Mexico side in Chile, with first-team regulars like Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Hector Herrera being saved for the Gold Cup next month.
El Tri are still capable of causing opponents problems, though, and veteran Marquez’s experience and leadership will be important to their chances of a decent showing.