However, with this tournament coming at the end of a season that has included six rounds of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers, and with a further six rounds scheduled in September, October and November, plus a South American Olympics this summer, fixture congestion and player management are likely to be key talking points and we could see a few surprises.
The United States benefitted from their status as hosts to be seeded but there’ll be no easy matches in Group A along with Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay. The USA have a habit of making life tough for the bigger names but when given the chance to win the Gold Cup on home soil last summer they fluffed their lines and only finished fourth.
Much was expected of Colombia a year ago but they seemed to lack the energy of their performances in Brazil 2014. Jose Pekerman is still in charge and two wins while scoring six times in March could signal a return to form.
Costa Rica were the surprise package of Brazil 2014 as they reached the quarter-finals and were only knocked out via penalties. They’ve got three wins in four World Cup qualifiers under new boss Oscar Ramirez which suggests they will continue to be hard to beat even if they’re not the most attractive to watch. However, the injury that has ruled out Keylor Navas is a huge blow.
Paraguay round out Group A and to highlight that there shouldn’t be any easy matches in this group they reached the semi-finals a year ago.
Brazil, as ever, are the big draw in their group. However, their summer is far more focussed on winning Olympic gold on home soil. The evidence of that is in Neymar’s absence from this tournament. An opening third to the World Cup qualifiers that has left them out of the qualifying spots has piled the pressure onto Dunga and if he’s to still be in charge for the Olympics they’ll surely need to perform better than 12 months ago.
Ecuador, like Brazil, also flopped in Chile last year as they were upset by Bolivia and despite beating a second-string Mexico side it wasn’t enough to make it out of what should have been a straightforward group.
Haiti should be the whipping boys in Group B. They’d not scored in five matches heading into this, prior to a 3-1 friendly defeat to Colombia, and given those were against Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica this looks too big of a step up.
Peru finished third in both 2015 and 2011 and have made it out of the groups in each of the past seven Copas. However, they might struggle to continue that here. Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan are major absences while three of their back four from last summer, Luis Advincula, Juan Vargas, and Carlos Zambrano also miss out.
Group C is headed by Mexico and after picking a second string squad 12 months ago as they preferred to target the CONCACAF Gold Cup they look a lot more dangerous this time around. They duly won the Gold Cup in 2015 and have started their World Cup qualifiers with a 100% record after four games, scoring 10 times and conceding none.
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Mexico are likely to be challenged by Uruguay for position as group winners and there are reasons for La Celeste to be a lot more positive than 12 months ago. Chiefly that is the return of Luis Suarez. They lead the World Cup qualifiers in South America with their only defeat coming at altitude against Ecuador and it’s no surprise to see they have the best defensive record given their all-Atletico Madrid central defensive partnership has been excelling all season in Europe.
Jamaica impressed many with their competitiveness in Chile a year ago, only losing 1-0 in all three games. They shouldn’t be written off and they now have a Premier League winning captain in defence in Wes Morgan, while the majority of the squad play in the MLS so will be in familiar surroundings, and at the very least the Reggae Boyz can be expected to be robust defensively. If they are to get a win, Jamaica’s best bet will be in their opening game against Venezuela, who are rock bottom of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers having conceded 17 times in their opening six games.
After the heartbreaks of the past two summers Argentina look to be targeting this tournament as a shot at redemption and certainly see it as more important than the age group contest that is the Olympics.
Chile are the defending champions as they handled the pressure to win in front of their own fans last summer. This came after some excellent performances at the 2014 World Cup. They’ve subsequently beaten Brazil in their opening World Cup qualifier in October but performances have dipped a touch since and they were rocked by the departure of manager Jorge Sampaoli in January.
Panama qualified via a play-off with Cuba in January. They came third in the Gold Cup last year but if that suggests they can compete here it has to be noted that they failed to win any of their six matches in that competition. Bolivia somehow reached the quarter-finals in 2015 having not won a match in the competition since reaching the final in 1997 as hosts, when the impact of playing every match at an altitude of 3,637 metres in La Paz turned them into world beaters. This time they are turning up with the least experienced squad in terms of caps and international goals so if they can beat Panama it will be a successful tournament.
Our rankings place Argentina top of the pile, ahead of Chile and then Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico – all of whom we have ranked in the top 11 in the world. While there’s a decent lead for Argentina in our gradings the following six are very hard to split. Below that Costa Rica are ranked highly on the back of their World Cup performance but the USA are down in ninth and surely have too many better sides ahead of them.
However, we feel that Argentina have to be opposed in this tournament. A brutal travelling schedule that would see them face almost 10,000 miles of travel between matches in just 20 days should they reach the final via winning their group looks a massive hurdle to clear/ Particularly as that would see them get just three days between their quarter-final and semi-final, while if they went into the other side of the draw they could easily face a quarter-final against Uruguay who would then be playing in the same stadium as their final group game. In a tournament that is being played in such a compact schedule that could prove critical.
We feel Mexico are value in their opener with Uruguay in the heat of Arizona and with little to split most of the top teams we’d look to get on them now at a better price than the other favourites. Mexico are seventh favourites at 12/1 but Ecuador are the next in the betting and there is a big drop to 33/1 as they look to be under-estimated.
Furthermore, while winning their group would be very helpful being runners-up will potentially give them a big advantage of two extra days compared to their opponents going into the semis and gives them decent each-way value.
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