When we look ahead to the Olympics, we usually think about track & field sports, swimming, cycling, maybe even wrestling and boxing.

Given it dominates so much of the sporting agenda for the rest of the year, football may not be among those sports we initially associate with the Olympics, but it has offered numerous stars the opportunity to show their talents to a global audience and to potentially take home a coveted medal.

Of course, the Olympic football tournament is geared more towards lesser-established players, given the age-restriction rules in place.

While teams are usually allowed no more than three players over the age of 23, that age limit has been increased to 24 so not to penalise those around the cut-off who may well have missed out as a result of the 12-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Superstars such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi may be missing, but there are still plenty of familiar faces. Barcelona's Pedri will be involved after starring for Spain at Euro 2020; Brazil great Dani Alves is joined by Arsenal and Everton forwards Gabriel Martinelli and Richarlison; and dynamic Milan midfielder Franck Kessie will be the Ivory Coast's go-to man.

But there are plenty of other relatively unheralded talents ready to make you sit up and take note. Below, Stats Perform takes a look at 10 of them.

Facundo Medina, 22, centre-back – Argentina

It's fair to say Lens defender Medina has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence. The French side brought him in from Club Atletico Talleres just last July and he's already being mentioned as a potential target for clubs like Manchester United.

While he may not be the most physically imposing central defender, he's a good technician, which is demonstrated by his ease on the ball – only three Ligue 1 centre-backs (more than 1,000 minutes played) embarked on more ball carries per 90 minutes (20) than Medina, while his average of 56 successful passes per game was more than any of his team-mates.

Bryan Gil, 20, winger – Spain

La Roja's squad is packed with familiar names – as many as six were at Euro 2020, and that doesn't include the likes of Marco Asensio, Carlos Soler and Dani Ceballos. But of the players with less global recognition, old-fashioned left-winger Bryan is arguably the most exciting.

He just completed a very encouraging loan spell away from Sevilla with Eibar, where his direct and brave style of play was frequently on display, with only Lionel Messi, Javi Galan and Yannick Carrasco attempting more dribbles than him (132). In January he became only the second player born this century to score a LaLiga brace, and he won his first senior Spain caps this year.

 

Diego Lainez, 21, winger – Mexico

It feels like Lainez has been tipped for a big future for a long time now – after all, he first burst on to the scene with Club America four years ago. Two-and-a-half years into his time in LaLiga with Real Betis, he's yet to really establish himself with only 13 of his 48 league appearances coming as a starter. He's still not scored a goal.

But there's no doubting he's a talent. In 2020-21, he attempted a dribble every 17 minutes, which was a record among Betis players and ahead of even Nabil Fekir (21 mins). Lainez is an entertainer and clearly gifted, but perhaps lacking consistency in his end product. Who knows, as one of the more talented players in the Mexico squad, being seen as a go-to player may aid his quest for maturity.

Teji Savanier, 29, central midfielder – France

Savanier is the odd one out in this list, given he's the only one who actually counts towards an over-age quota, though it could be argued that it's to players like him that playing at the Olympics may matter the most. Savanier's never even played for France's youth teams, let alone the senior side, and he only made his top-flight bow as recently as 2018, but he's one of those central midfielders that's a joy to watch with his wonderful ability on the ball.

He has completed 58.4 per cent of his 279 dribbles in Ligue 1 since July 2018, which is bettered by only three players (more than 150 attempts) in the same period. For greater context, Neymar's completion rate in that time is 52.5 per cent. Savanier should also provide France with a threat at set-pieces, as only Benjamin Bourigeaud created more chances (40) from such situations than the Montpellier star (37) in 2020-21.

 

Thiago Almada, 20, attacking midfielder – Argentina

La Albiceleste's squad boasts numerous talented young attacking players – Ezequiel Barco, Pedro de la Vega, Ezequiel Ponce, but Almada's arguably rated highest of the lot.

A diminutive attacking midfielder from Carlos Tevez's old neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, Fuerte Apache, Almada is skilful, explosive and creative. Among players born this century, Almada boasts the best chances created per game frequency (two) in the Copa Libertadores (at least two games played) this season, as well as being the youngest player to have netted at least twice in the competition in 2021.

Claudinho, 24, forward – Brazil

All roads point to Europe for Claudinho, who looks poised to be the first major export of Red Bull Bragantino, the energy drink giant's Brazilian club. While no move has been confirmed yet, it seems only a matter of time before RB Leipzig look to bring him over to Germany.

 

After all, he was the joint-top scorer in the 2020 Brasileirao (18 goals), with his finishing abilities highlighted by the fact a league-high seven of those were scored from outside the box. Claudinho also created 25 more chances than anyone else in the division, and scooped both the Young Player of the Year and MVP awards.

 

Nathanael Mbuku, 19, winger – France

He may not necessarily be a starter for Les Bleus, given they've plenty of attacking talent in the squad, but at the very least left-winger Mbuku could be an interesting option from the bench. Reims are reported to already value him at €15million, and he has previous when it comes to excelling in national team colours – he netted five goals in six games as France finished third at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup.

Mbuku enjoyed a smattering of Ligue 1 appearances that season, though it was in 2020-21 that he truly established himself, making 28 starts – that was tied with Eduardo Camavinga for the most by a player born in 2002 or after. He caught the eye with his ability to beat a man, completing a highly respectable 58.1 per cent of his 74 dribbles last term, a completion rate bettered by only 10 players who attempted at least 70.

Felix Uduokhai, 23, centre-back – Germany

Wolfsburg plucked Uduokhai from 1860 Munich in 2017 with much expected of him. He fell well out of favour in his second season before moving on loan to Augsburg, who triggered their purchase option on him last year. Since moving to Bavaria, he's hardly looked back.

He earned his first senior call-up to the Germany team in November and now there is chatter that some of the Bundesliga's biggest clubs are circling for him again. Whoever gets Uduokhai will land an imposing centre-back whose 102 aerial wins was the fourth-highest in the league last term, while only Amos Pieper (160) bettered his 157 clearances.

 

Brenno, 22, goalkeeper – Brazil

For years, goalkeeper was considered the only position where Brazil struggled to develop world-class players, though Alisson and Ederson have firmly disproved that notion and Brenno could be another to keep an eye on.

In the 2021 Brasileirao, Brenno is averaging the fourth-most amount of saves per 90 minutes (3.5) among those to have played at least four times, and is reportedly interesting Portuguese clubs. A solid showing in Japan might see a potential transfer sped up.

Amad Diallo, 19, winger – Ivory Coast

Manchester United fans will be eager to get a good look at Amad during the Olympics, given they only got glimpses of him in 2020-21 after joining from Atalanta. Amid those eight appearances, he certainly showed flashes of his exciting ability and silky footwork, but they will hope to see some performances of a little more substance.

As much as anything, it could be an opportunity for Amad to earn himself a loan move or prove to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he's worth keeping around. Jadon Sancho's arrival will likely further impact his exposure to first-team football, but impressing in Japan might encourage his manager to use him as a regular back up to the England international, with Mason Greenwood moved into a central position.

Juventus have confirmed that midfielder Arthur will miss the start of the Serie A season after undergoing successful knee surgery.

The Brazil international is set to be sidelined for the opening few weeks of Juve’s quest to wrestle back the Scudetto from Inter, which begins away at Udinese on August 22.

Following his switch from Barcelona in June 2020 – in a deal that saw Miralem Pjanic head in the opposite direction – Arthur played 32 times in all competitions during his debut season with the Bianconeri.

The central midfielder scored his first goal for the club in a 2-0 win over Bologna in January.

Italy and Argentina can prepare for the 2022 World Cup full of confidence after continental triumphs in the European Championship and Copa America.

The Azzurri have recovered in spectacular fashion from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally has an international honour to shout about.

Those teams were not alone in taking encouragement from this year's major international tournaments, but other potential Qatar contenders were not quite so impressive.

While some sides could reasonably point to mitigating factors – Belgium's injuries, Germany's final campaign under Joachim Low – plenty of big names underwhelmed.

With the World Cup finals, now just 16 months away, the next big target on the horizon, Stats Perform assesses which teams have put themselves in a better or worse position to challenge.

FULL OF HOPE...

Italy

Italy might have missed the previous World Cup after an awful qualifying campaign but, barring another such mishap, will enter the next tournament as defending European champions, and the Azzurri have in the past tended to perform better on the world stage than in the Euros, this their second continental championship to go alongside four global triumphs.

The only question mark against Roberto Mancini's side heading into Euro 2020 on a long unbeaten run was how they might fare against top teams, having largely avoided facing elite opposition since their most recent defeat to Portugal in September 2018. They then eliminated Belgium, Spain and England in succession to take the title and extend their stunning streak to 34 matches without a loss.

 

Only in the centre of defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are Italy really ageing, and even then a swift turnaround could see the pair go again, having trailed for only 109 minutes of their undefeated stretch – 65 of those coming in the final against England.

Argentina

Argentina had been without a major honour since 1993, losing four Copa America finals and one World Cup decider since then. Messi had been involved in four of those five disappointments, but his and his country's fortunes finally changed for the better against Brazil.

The world's finest free agent was the obvious difference-maker, even if he did not score or create a goal in the 2021 final. Messi's goal involvements across the campaign improved from two in 2019 to a leading nine. He also created more chances (3.0, up from 2.0) and attempted more shots (4.0, up from 3.1) per 90 minutes.

But Messi also benefited from Argentina's sturdier foundations. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – a debutant last month – was a breakout star, with the defence in front of him limiting chances as La Albiceleste conceded only three goals, half as many as in more matches in two years earlier.

England

Qatar 2022 will feel a long way away right now for England, who were so close yet so far from glory at Wembley. It ended in disappointment, but just making a first major tournament final in 55 years can only be counted as a success.

And the Three Lions have now proven they can now regularly contend; having reached the semi-finals at the previous World Cup, they have won knockout matches at consecutive tournaments (excluding third-place play-offs) for the first time. This might well be England's best ever team and they still have age on their side heading to Qatar.

Gareth Southgate's side should at least continue to be hard to beat. Since his first game in charge in 2016, England have kept 35 clean sheets – four clear of Italy with the best tally for a European nation.

 

Spain

Two games into Euro 2020, it seemed unlikely Spain would emerge from the tournament in a particularly positive light. They had dominated against Sweden – setting records for possession (85 per cent), passes (917) and successful passes (830) – and Poland, yet drawn both matches.

But the next two outings were rather more uplifting as La Roja scored five times against both Slovakia and Croatia to become the first team in Euros history to do so in consecutive matches. After scraping past Switzerland on penalties, Spain were the better side against Italy in the last four, only to come up just short – this time beaten on spot-kicks.

If Luis Enrique can unearth a reliable forward before next November, having underperformed their expected goals total by an alarming 4.1, Spain will very much be back in business.

DOWNWARD SLOPE...

Netherlands

At the end of the group stage, the Netherlands looked to be on a comparable course to Italy. They had also missed out on the 2018 World Cup – and Euro 2016 – but then reached the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and won their first three matches at Euro 2020.

Led by Memphis Depay, those victories had also extended a run of scoring at least twice to 10 consecutive games in an Oranje record. Only then, though, did their campaign fall apart.

 

Matthijs de Ligt's red card against the Czech Republic in the last 16 led to a shock 2-0 defeat and cost Frank de Boer his job. Rebuilding again, the Netherlands – who were missing Virgil van Dijk due to the injury he sustained in October 2020 – have work to do just to get to Qatar, one of three teams on six points in Group G in qualifying, behind Turkey.

France

France were the favourites for Euro 2020 and may well be the popular pick again next year, but their shock shoot-out exit to Switzerland raised plenty of questions.

Supposed to shine alongside the returning Karim Benzema, superstar forward Kylian Mbappe disappointed for the first time on the big stage, a solitary assist his only goal involvement. Yet even when the big names did combine to devastating effect, as Benzema scored twice within four minutes and three seconds of a Hugo Lloris penalty save against Switzerland, dismal defending cost Les Bleus.

France gave away a tournament-high three spot-kicks, not helped by Didier Deschamps' unsuccessful attempt to switch to a new 3-4-1-2 formation – one that will surely be left in the drawer for the World Cup.

Portugal

Will Cristiano Ronaldo consider this a successful tournament? Portugal lost their crown, but he took home the Golden Boot with five goals and an assist. The Juventus forward's contributions kept Fernando Santos' side in contention as far as the round of 16, although – as at times at club level – there was a suspicion this team might better be able to thrive without their talisman.

 

No other Portugal player tallied more than two goal involvements, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva each drawing blanks. Indeed, that highly talented quartet only attempted 10 shots – five fewer than Ronaldo alone – and created 13 chances between them.

In Qatar, Ronaldo may be less mobile but will surely remain front and centre, reluctant to step aside for Fernandes and Co as he takes one final shot at World Cup glory.

Brazil

Had a tense home final gone their way, Brazil would have again been big winners coming out of the Copa America. But Argentina's progress and decisive victory has seen the Selecao – for so long on top in South America – knocked off their perch.

After five consecutive successes, it was Brazil's first major tournament final defeat since the 1998 World Cup, while they had not been beaten in a knockout match at the Copa America (excluding penalties) since 2001 against Honduras. However, they did become world champions for a fifth time the following year.

That will be the hope as Tite's men regroup, having lost their scoring touch when it mattered most. Brazil netted only twice in three knockout games.

Lionel Messi's long wait for major international honours with Argentina is finally over after playing a starring role in their Copa America triumph, winning the Player of the Tournament prize before the final was even played.

In the age-old – and some might say tiresome – 'greatest of all time' debate, the stick usually used to beat Messi with revolved around his lack of titles with Argentina, but that is no longer relevant and he also played a vital role for La Albiceleste.

It was also an important barrier that Argentina broke down as a team, winning their first major international title since 1993.

Messi's performances see him lead Stats Perform's Opta data-driven Team of the Tournament, and he is joined by some familiar names as well as those who enjoyed breakthroughs over the past month.

 

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Argentina)

Aston Villa keeper Martinez has enjoyed a remarkable 18 months or so and it's fair to say his form at the Copa America has helped truly cement his place as Argentina's first choice between the posts. His personality proved vital in the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the semi-finals as he psyched out Yerry Mina, but he also showed his excellence by finishing with an 85.7 per cent save ratio that was the second best in the tournament, while his four clean sheets was the best tally.

 

Right-back – Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)

Cuadrado can always be relied upon to provide some attacking impetus on the right flank and he certainly didn't disappoint in the Copa, his 18 chances created being the most for Colombia and among the top five of all players. The same could be said of his 22 open-play crosses, while Cuadrado also made 45 recoveries, the second most in Los Cafeteros' squad, highlighting how he was often in the right place to sweep up danger as well.

 

Centre-back – Marquinhos (Brazil)

While Brazil ultimately fell short at the Maracana on Saturday, Marquinhos can leave the tournament with his head held high. His ability to bring the ball out from the back was routinely notable, as highlighted by the fact his 110 carries was bettered by only four players, all of whom are forwards, but he was also a commanding presence at the back, with his 2.8 aerial the most among Brazil players.

Centre-back – Piero Hincapie (Ecuador)

Still only 19, Hincapie showed real promise here. Granted, there were signs that he remains quite raw and naive, as demonstrated by some of his struggles against Argentina in the quarter-finals when he was sent off late on for tugging back Angel Di Maria. Nevertheless, the Lazio-linked talent averaged the most passes per game for Ecuador (52.2) and showed real positivity when in possession, carrying the ball 600.7 metres upfield over the course of the tournament, at least 44m more than any other centre-back.

Left-back – Pervis Estupinan (Ecuador)

Estupinan endured a somewhat underwhelming first season with Villarreal in 2020-21, but in the Copa he showed glimpses of the player that had impressed so regularly with Osasuna the season before. He was consistently a useful outlet on the left and his eagerness to create saw him average more crosses per 90 minutes (9.6) than any other player in the tournament, while his 2.4 key passes each game was the most of all defenders.

Central midfield – Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

The all-action midfielder performed an important function as Colombia ultimately finished third in the Copa. Barrios was tidy in possession as he looked to keep Reinaldo Rueda's men ticking, completing 88 per cent of his passes, but he was also effective at regaining possession and recovering the ball as he started 76 open play sequences, which only Yoshimar Yotun and Casemiro could better.

Central midfield – Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)

Get ready to hear a bit more about De Paul over the next few years. While he's by no means an unknown given he's had a strong few years with Udinese, the midfielder is set to join Atletico Madrid and offers the blend of off-the-ball nous and technical ability that should see him thrive under Diego Simeone. His 32 ball recoveries led the way for Argentina while his six key passes was second only to Lionel Messi, with one of those being the glorious long-range pass to release Di Maria for the crucial goal in the final.

Right wing – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

While he may have fluffed his lines at the end of the final, Messi's exploits throughout the tournament previously meant he could be forgiven for that. After all, without his unbeaten four goals and five assists – a high for the tournament – Argentina almost certainly wouldn't have reached the showpiece. He remains one goal behind Pele's record (77) for CONMEBOL nations, but he finally has his first trophy with Argentina, and that's what matters most.

 

Attacking midfield – Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar had a peculiar tournament in some ways. No one would suggest he was poor, because he was routinely the player that provided the spark for Brazil, as evidenced by his tournament-leading 3.5 key passes and 21.6 passes into the final third each game (among players with more than one match played), but he was also wasteful in front of goal, his one non-penalty goal from 5.3 xG giving him the worst xG under-performance (4.3) at the tournament.

 

Left wing – Luis Diaz (Colombia)

Porto's Diaz is an exciting player and showed as much for Colombia as they claimed bronze. He scored more non-penalty goals (four) than any other player and produced some spectacular finishes, such as his remarkable bicycle-kick against Brazil and 30-yard screamer to seal victory in the third-place play-off against Peru. His four goals came from just 10 shots, with that 40 per cent conversion the best among those with three or more goals.

 

Striker – Lautaro Martinez (Argentina)

Despite the presence of Sergio Aguero, Martinez was the man generally chosen to lead the line at the Copa and he did fairly well as he netted three goals, with only Messi and Diaz getting more. While he was guilty of wastefulness at times, his three-goal haul was actually pretty close to his 3.3 xG, showing that for the most part he was dependable. Similarly, only two players averaged more shots on target per 90 minutes (players with more than one match played) than his 1.4. He also improved on his two goals from the 2019 edition, so he's seemingly going in the right direction.

Lionel Messi has expressed his happiness and relief at finally winning silverware with Argentina after Saturday's Copa America 2021 triumph over Brazil at the Maracana.

Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 after Angel Di Maria's 22nd-minute strike, earning six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi his maiden piece of silverware with La Albiceleste.

Messi has finished runner-up in the Copa three times; 2007, 2015 and 2016, as well as runner-up at the 2014 World Cup and revealed his joy after the game.

"I needed to get the thorn out of being able to achieve something with the national team, I had been very close for many years," Messi told reporters.

"I knew that at some point it was going to go right, it was going to happen and I think there is no better moment than this.

"I feel that God was saving this moment for me, against Brazil in the final and in their country."

Along with breaking 34-year-old Messi's international duck, it is also was Argentina's first Copa America since 1993, ending a 28-year wait.

"We still cannot believe that we are champions and what we have achieved," Messi said. "But I think it will be a match that will remain in history, not only because we are champions of South America but also because we beat them Brazil in their country."

Argentina's win marked 20 games unbeaten under head coach Lionel Scaloni and offered optimism for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Scaloni has changed the Argentine side, with relative newcomers Emiliano Martinez, Rodrigo De Paul and Cristiano Romero impressing.

"Lionel deserves special merit," Messi said. "He always wanted the best for the national team. He knew how to put together a winning team and deserves recognition."

Messi added: "We have to take advantage of this generation, this new crop of players. I told them they were going to be the future of the national team and I was not wrong. They showed it, today we are champions."

Scaloni also heaped praise on Messi who was named Player of the Tournament alongside Brazil's Neymar.

The Argentine finished as the equal top scorer with four goals as well as most assists (five).

“If all Argentines knew about the way he played this Copa America, they would love him more and more," Scaloni said. "I have no doubt.

"I, as a coach, could never do without this player, including playing in inferior conditions than we faced in this final and the semi-final.

"That's the kind of player we have and we have to enjoy, because one day in your career you won't be playing anymore. I have no words for him, he makes things easier on a daily basis."

Brazil head coach Tite has praised superstar Neymar for his show of sportsmanship to Lionel Messi after his side's 1-0 Copa America final defeat to Argentina on Saturday.

Neymar's Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Angel Di Maria scored the winner in the 22nd minute at the Maracana as Argentina lifted its first Copa since 1993 as Brazil relinquished the crown it won in 2019.

The Brazil boss was clearly disappointment with the result but spoke positively about Neymar's grace after acknowledging Messi's achievement in winning his maiden piece of silverware with Argentina.

The superstar pair are close friends from their four years together at Barcelona.

"There is greatness in defeat and in recognising the rival," Tite said.

"Perhaps, the image that was seen between Messi and Neymar after the game is a message that we have to give."

Tite was less positive about Copa America organisers, identifying CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez for criticism at the hastily organised event.

Copa America 2021 was originally planned to be played in Colombia and Argentina but hastily re-arranged due to political and COVID-19 issues with Brazil confirmed as hosts in May.

The defeat was the first time the Selecao have failed to win a Copa America played in Brazil, winning all five previous tournaments on home soil.

"The organisation of the Copa America left a lot to be desired," Tite said after the final defeat. "The quality of the pitches [left a lot to be desired].

"We almost lost Everton in training. We went to train, the grass locked up and he had a dislocated finger. In a short time it is impossible to organise a competition of this magnitude.

"I'm specifically talking about the person in charge, Alejandro (Dominguez), president of CONMEBOL, of having the organisation of the competition over a short period of time."

Tite had been outspoken about the quality of pitches during the tournament, in particular Estadio Nilton Santos in Rio de Janeiro where Brazil played four games.

Brazil's participation at the Copa was in doubt pre-tournament as the players opposed the relocation amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Like Cristiano Ronaldo five years ago, Lionel Messi has ended his international trophy drought with continental glory.

Ballon d'Ors are one thing, with the pair sharing 11 between them, but achieving success with the national team has been critical to the grander standing and legacy of the two outstanding players of this generation.

There is a school of thought that Messi remains in Diego Maradona's shadow in Argentina.

The late Maradona, of course, took La Albiceleste to World Cup glory in 1986, which has eluded Messi who was a runner-up in 2014.

But Messi had also never won the Copa America. That was until Saturday's 1-0 win over Brazil, at the Maracana, the same venue where he lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany.

Messi was part of the Argentina sides that lost Copa finals in 2015 and 2016. He briefly retired after missing his penalty in the 2016 final shootout.

This tournament was his sixth shot at lifting the trophy. And it was the 34-year-old's best yet, dominating as joint top scorer with four goals and topping the Copa assists charts with four.

Messi was not the star in the final, with a lively Angel Di Maria scoring the winner with Argentina's first touch inside Brazil's penalty area.

Udinese midfielder Rodrigo De Paul set up the winner and was a key presence at both ends, while goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was the star in the semi-final shootout and exceptional again in the final.

But Messi was the big story. The Argentina captain and superstar has taken a huge weight off his shoulders with international glory.

Argentina fans will start dreaming about what is possible at next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Lionel Scaloni's La Albiceleste are unbeaten across 20 games and conceded only three goals at the Copa America.

Argentina scored 12 goals across the seven games in the tournament, with Messi directly involved in nine.

The final was billed as Messi versus fellow superstar and former Barcelona team-mate Neymar, who was busy but closely marked throughout by the Argentines in the final.

Neymar, who missed Brazil's 2019 Copa triumph, is another global superstar yet to lift the World Cup or a continental title. Missing out on home soil will be a great disappointment for the Selecao.

The loss was Brazil's first at home in 25 games under Tite (W21 D3 L1). It also ended their 13-game unbeaten run.

The margin between victory and defeat was fine, but the fallout for Messi and Neymar is a stark contrast. Ecstasy and pain.

Argentina have ended their 28-year wait to lift the Copa America after Angel Di Maria's first-half goal clinched a 1-0 victory over Brazil in Saturday's final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana.

Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Di Maria, who was promoted to the starting line-up for the final, coolly lobbed over Brazil goalkeeper Ederson for the 22nd-minute winner.

Argentina had been Copa runners-up at four of the past seven tournaments, losing to rivals Brazil in 2004 and 2007, but finally claimed the country's 15th continental crown.

The triumph also marks Lionel Messi's maiden piece of major silverware with Argentina, with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner dominant throughout the tournament, finishing with most goals (four) and most assists (five).

In a physical encounter, Brazil superstar Neymar received plenty of attention while Messi was unable to exude his normal influence for La Albiceleste.

Brazil started the better but could only manage scuffed efforts on goal from Everton and Richarlison before Argentina struck against the run of play.

The outstanding Rodrigo De Paul's hopeful ball forward eluded Selecao left-back Renan Lodi, allowing Di Maria in behind and he calmly poked over the onrushing Ederson.

Di Maria was a constant threat in the first half, with a left-foot effort blocked by Marquinhos before Messi flashed wide.

With the half-time injection of Roberto Firmino, Brazil pressed and thought they had equalised in the 52nd minute when Richarlison hit the back of the net but was offside in the lead-up.

The Everton forward tested Argentina keeper Emiliano Martinez at his near post shortly after, with the Aston Villa man saving smartly.

Brazil substitute Gabriel Barbosa had a late volley brilliantly thwarted by Martinez, before an exhausted Messi spurned a golden opportunity to seal the win from De Paul's throughball.

Lionel Messi will lead out Argentina in Saturday's Copa America final aware it could be the last opportunity he has to win silverware with La Albiceleste – and ending that hoodoo against Brazil would be the sweetest prize of all.

Messi holds the records for most caps and goals for Argentina, and his career at club level with Barcelona has ensured his legacy will be intrinsically linked to the sport for the rest of time.

But there remains a niggling frustration with respect to his time with Argentina, given he is yet to win a major international tournament with them. It is arguably the final piece of the puzzle and the one thing that separates him from the others in the 'greatest of all-time' debate.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele, Diego Maradona – they all enjoyed success on the international stage, and while it would be unfair to suggest Messi's legacy will not match up to theirs without honours with Argentina, it is a fact that would be continuously used to downplay his claim regardless of winning everything at Barca.

 

It is not that Messi has not come close – this will be his fifth major senior final with Argentina, and he's lost the previous four, but will Argentina be considered among the favourites at the World Cup next year? Probably not.

It may be now or never, and standing in the way is his former Barca team-mate Neymar, who will be playing his first major final for Brazil.

The Paris Saint-Germain star has been typically enthralling to watch in the tournament, though Brazil will be hoping his form in front of goal improves. It has not done them much damage thus far given they are in the final, but his one non-penalty goal comes from an xG (expected goals) value of 5.1 – it's two from 5.9 with penalties included.

 

No one else in the tournament has been as wasteful as Neymar, whose eight Opta-defined 'big chances' missed is also the most of anyone at Copa America 2021.

But Messi will know more than most that Neymar rises to the biggest occasions, and few are bigger than a Superclasico in a Copa America final.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Lucas Paqueta

While Paqueta's club career may not have taken off in Europe as he would have liked following his initial move to Milan, it is fair to say this tournament has represented something of a 'coming of age' tale for him on the international stage. With two goals, he heads into the final tied with Neymar as the Selecao's leading goalscorer, while he's also been a creative threat. Granted, he may not have any assists yet, but his 1.56 xA (expected assists) is bettered only by Messi (2.93) and Neymar (2.34). He has been let down by poor finishing, but at least the chances are flowing.

 

Argentina – Lautaro Martinez

Along with Messi (four, including one penalty), Martinez (three) is the only player to have scored more than twice at this year's tournament. Although he is slightly underperforming his 3.3 xG and has missed five 'big chances', the Inter striker has been consistently dangerous, with his 0.88 xG per 90 minutes second only to Neymar (1.03) among players to have played at least 180 minutes. 

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil will be playing their seventh final in the last 11 editions of the Copa America, winning on their most recent five appearances in the showpiece game (1997, 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2019). Their last defeat in a Copa America final was in 1995, losing the title to Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out.

- Brazil have not lost a knockout match at the Copa America (W7 D6) since 2001, when they suffered a 2-0 loss against Honduras. Their eliminations since then came via penalty shoot-outs (2011 and 2015) or in the group stage (2016).

- Brazil have reached the final in all editions of the Copa America played on Brazilian soil (six, including 2021). They won each of the previous five.

- Argentina will be playing their sixth final in the Copa America since 1993. It will be the third time in this period that they have played for the title against Brazil, failing to win against them in the past two deciders between the teams.

- Messi has scored five times against Brazil, making them his joint second-favourite opponent after Ecuador (six goals).

Neymar will be putting his friendship with former Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi aside as he chases his first Copa America title with Brazil in Saturday's final.

Brazil takes on Argentina in the Copa America 2021 decider at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, with both players pursuing their first-ever continental crowns.

Messi's Argentina have not won the Copa since 1993, while injury meant Neymar was not part of the Brazil squad which triumphed in 2019.

The pair have a close friendship from Neymar's four years in Barcelona, while they have both dominated this Copa.

Messi leads the Copa with four goals and five assists, while Neymar has contributed two goals and three assists for hosts Brazil.

"Messi is, as I've always said, the best player I've ever seen play and he's a great friend," Neymar said. "But now we're in a final, we're rivals. I want to win and I really want to win this title, which would be my first Copa America.

"Messi has been looking for his first title with the national team for many years, and every time we we [Brazil] are not present at the tournament, I cheered for him.

"That's what I've been cheering for in the 2014 World Cup final, when he faced Germany.

"Now Brazil is in the dispute, so our friendship is on the line [laughs]. The respect between us in still great but only one can win."

He added: "When you're friends with someone, it's hard to forget the friendship you have... but for example when you play video games with a friend, you want to beat him anyway. It'll be the same thing on Saturday."

Neymar also hit out on Instagram about Brazilian fans who have turned on the national team and opted to support rivals Argentina.

"I'm Brazilian with a lot of pride, with a lot of love. My dream was always to be in the Brazilian national team and hear the fans singing," he wrote. "I've never supported or will support against anything Brazil is competing for, whatever the sport or modelling contest."

Brazil is chasing its 10th Copa title, while Argentina is looking to end its 28-year wait to add to its 14 continental crowns.

Argentina have won five games in a row, including their semi-final victory over Colombia, and are unbeaten across their past 19 games.

Brazil are undefeated in their past 13 games and have only conceded two goals at Copa America 2021.

Brazil superstar Neymar said he wants to face Lionel Messi's Argentina in the Copa America final after the defending champions edged Peru.

Neymar provided the assist for Lucas Paqueta's 35th-minute winner as Brazil saw off 2019 runners-up Peru 1-0 in Monday's semi-final.

Brazil will meet the winner of the Argentina-Colombia semi in Saturday's decider at the iconic Maracana and Neymar is eyeing a blockbuster showdown with La Albiceleste.

South American rivals Brazil and Argentina have not met in a Copa final since 2007, when the Selecao won 3-0.

"I want Argentina, I'm rooting for Argentina," Neymar – a former Barcelona team-mate of Messi – said post-match in Rio de Janeiro.

"I have friends there, then in the final it will be Brazil [laughs]."

 

Neymar was impressive throughout at Estadio Nilton Santos, attempting a team-high four shots to go with two key passes and the decisive assist.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward was also fouled three times. No player has been fouled more often than Neymar (25) during this year's CONMEBOL tournament.

Meanwhile, head coach Tite made history by equalling Mario Zagallo as the Brazil head coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12), winning nine games and drawing three fixtures.

The 60-year-old has the fifth-best winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 games in Copa America history – 75 per cent.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 42 clean sheets in 60 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (70 per cent).

After the game, however, Neymar took aim at Chilean referee Roberto Tobar, saying: "The referee cannot do what he did. It's a lack of respect for all the players, the way he talks, the way he looks, what he says on the field to the players. 

"From the very first minute I went to talk to him, and he was very arrogant. Everyone is saying that, I think it's not normal for both teams to complain. 

"Not the way he whistled the match. He can make mistakes, that's part of it, but the arrogance he had in that match... For me, he can't be a referee in a Copa America semi-final."

Just like the quarter-final, Paqueta scored the winning goal for Brazil – who are now eyeing their 10th Copa crown.

Paqueta has scored in back-to-back appearances for Brazil in all competitions for the first time in his career.

"Paqueta is a great player," Neymar said. "Has been growing with each game, with each game he plays for the national team. He had a great season for his club and has shown that he can be a very important player for us in the national team.  I'm happy with his participation, with the game he played. It's always good to meet great players in the national team."

It is hard to think that before the start of this year's Copa America, some were calling for Tite's sacking.

Those calls stemmed on the uncertainty of the Selecao's participation after CONMEBOL controversially relocated the event from Argentina to Brazil.

The Brazil squad were united against hosting the Copa on home soil amid the coronavirus pandemic. The defending champions eventually committed to representing their country and now they stand on the cusp of another title with Tite at the helm.

On an historic night for Tite, Brazil moved through to a second consecutive Copa final at the expense of 2019 runners-up Peru 1-0 on Monday.

Tite made history by equalling Mario Zagallo as the Brazil head coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12), winning nine games and drawing three fixtures.

 

The 60-year-old has the fifth-best winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 games in Copa America history – 75 per cent.

Only Flavio Costa (79 per cent, 19 games), Zagallo (83 per cent, 12 games), Guillermo Stabile (84 per cent, 44 games) and Pedro Cea (90 per cent, 10 games) have a better percentage.

Lucas Paqueta scored the decisive goal 10 minutes before half-time as Brazil extended their undefeated streak to 13 matches across all competitions, a run including 10 clean sheets and dating back to November 2019.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 42 clean sheets in 60 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (70 per cent).

During his tenure, Brazil have 45 wins, 11 draws and just four defeats.

This Brazil team have style and substance – trademark flair and free-flowing football but with defensive stability and the ability to close out games.

As Brazil – who have won the last five Copa finals they have played, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2019 - await rivals Argentina or Colombia in Saturday's decider, Tite continues to reach new heights.

Defending champions Brazil booked their spot in another Copa America final after seeing off Peru 1-0 on Monday.

In a repeat of the 2019 Copa decider, Lucas Paqueta settled the semi-final contest with his 35th-minute goal in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil will face either Argentina or Colombia in the decider after Tite made history by equalling Mario Zagallo as the Selecao head coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12).

Tite's Brazil started on the front foot as Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was kept busy at Estadio Nilton Santos.

The first big chance of the game fell to Brazil in the eighth minute as Paqueta slid a wonderful pass to Richarlison, who rounded Gallese and cut the ball to Neymar but the latter was unable to direct his shot on target.

Gallese survived a nervy moment five minutes later after spilling Casemiro's long-range free-kick before managing to save it at the second attempt.

The heroics of Gallese continued to keep Brazil at bay, with the Peru shot-stopper somehow denying Neymar from close range as he then got up quickly to stop Richarlison's follow-up effort.

As Brazil found more and more space, the Selecao finally beat Gallese and broke Peru's stubborn resistance 10 minutes prior to half-time.

Richarlison released Neymar and he wriggled away from three players before looking up and cutting the ball to Paqueta, who made no mistake.

Brazil goalkeeper Ederson had been a bystander until he was called into action for the first time four minutes into the second half, keeping out Gianluca Lapadula after the Peru forward cut inside and fired a shot across goal.

Unlike the first half, Brazil were made to work by Peru and La Blanquirroja again tested Ederson just past the hour mark as Raziel Garcia tried his luck from distance with a tricky attempt.

There were shouts for a Brazil penalty with 19 minutes remaining when Richarlison went down under a challenge following a superb pass from Neymar, but the protests were waved away by the referee.

Peru had a great chance to level the match nine minutes from the end after Ederson completely missed his attempt to punch a free-kick away, but Alexander Callens' header sailed wide of the post.

What does it mean? Brazil advance on historic night for Tite

Eyeing a 10th Copa title, Brazil reached a second consecutive final as Tite made history following a 12th match without defeat in the CONMEBOL showpiece, matching Zagallo.

Brazil have now gone 13 games unbeaten in all competitions, keeping a clean sheet in 10 of those.

Paqueta stars again

After a bright start to life at Milan, things turned sour for Paqueta at San Siro. However, a switch to Ligue 1's Lyon has proven to be the tonic for the 23-year-old. Paqueta has scored in back-to-back appearances for Brazil in all competitions for the first time in his career.

Peru fail to take chances

Peru were the better team in the second half, having struggled to make an impact in the opening 45 minutes. Against a formidable opponent now specialists in closing out matches, Peru needed to capitalise on their opportunities but Ricardo Gareca's men – in a spirited showing without some important players – were unable to get past Ederson.

What's next?

Next up for Brazil is Saturday's final as they await the winner of the Argentina-Colombia semi. Peru will turn their attention to September's World Cup qualifiers.

Brazil head coach Tite and the Selecao are eyeing the Copa America final as they prepare to face Peru in a rematch of the 2019 decider.

Tite's defending champions Brazil and Peru will go head-to-head in Monday's semi-final in Rio de Janeiro.

The Selecao have now gone 12 games in all competitions without defeat, keeping a clean sheet in nine of those after defeating Chile 1-0 in the quarter-finals, while Tite is yet to lose a match in this competition while in charge.

Should Brazil reach back-to-back Copa finals, Tite will equal Mario Zagallo as the Selecao coach with the longest unbeaten run in the tournament's history (12 games).

"The two teams have a tradition of clashes in the Copa America and two years ago we met in the final, but we also met in the group stage and in the play-offs," Tite told reporters.

"But the antecedents cannot make us predict a prediction because the situations, the different moments, teams and realities, it is also a play-off game. Our goal is to reach the final and Peru's is the same."

 

Nine-time champions Brazil will host Peru for 20th time in competitive games (W15 D2 L2). One of those defeats was in the 1975 Copa America, the last time the Selecao lost a game at home in the competition (3-1).

Tite's men are the top-scoring team in this year's finals (11), eight of their goals coming in the second half and five in the last 15 minutes, each more than any other team in the competition.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 41 clean sheets in 59 games under Tite across all competitions (69.5 per cent).

"Football is a game with many variables, perhaps it is the collective sport with more variables that you cannot control," Tite said. "When a team plays defence in the first half, it tends to get more tired and in the second half leaves more space.

"In one sector of the field you may have a player who defends more than in the other, but if the playing field is good it may be that you take advantage of one sector more than another.

"So, there are many variables, the players have to maintain a pattern and understand that those variables that one cannot control are typical of football, unlike basketball, volleyball, and that effectiveness depends on performance."

Brazil head coach Tite will attempt an historic result on Monday as his side face Peru in the Copa America semi-finals.

The defending champions battled into the last four after beating Chile 1-0 despite playing almost all of the second half with 10 men following Gabriel Jesus' red card for an awful high challenge.

They have now gone 12 games in all competitions without defeat, keeping a clean sheet in nine of those, while Tite is yet to lose a match in this competition while in charge of the Selecao.

Should they reach the final this time around, the 60-year-old will equal Mario Zagallo as the Brazil coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12 games).

Standing in the hosts' way are a Peru side who came through a thrilling quarter-final against Paraguay, which ended 3-3 after extra time and with each side down to 10 men.

In the end, Miguel Trauco's sudden-death penalty secured Peru's place in the semi-finals for the fourth time in five tournaments.

Head coach Ricardo Gareca has only managed to beat Brazil twice in 10 attempts, with their previous meeting in the 2021 group stage ending in a 4-0 win for the five-time world champions.

Brazil have also not lost a Copa America match on home soil since 1975 – but that 3-1 defeat came at the hands of Peru in the semi-final first leg of their triumphant campaign.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Lucas Paqueta

Lyon midfielder Lucas Paqueta needed less than a minute on the pitch as a half-time substitute before scoring what proved to be the winner against Chile.

With Jesus suspended and Roberto Firmino not wholly convincing at these finals, Paqueta may well have a key role to play here.

Peru – Yoshimar Yotun

With a goal, an assist and a converted spot-kick in the shoot-out, few Peru players did as much to drag them into the final four as Yoshimar Yotun.

The Cruz Azul midfielder is a versatile asset at the heart of the side and could be equally important in disrupting Brazil's rhythm and getting Peru up the pitch when possible.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil will host Peru for 20th time in competitive games (W15 D2 L2). One of those defeats was in the 1975 Copa America, the last time Brazil lost a game at home in the competition (3-1).
- Tite has never lost a game in the Copa America (W8 D3). If Brazil reach the final, Tite will equal Mario Zagallo as the Selecao boss with the longest unbeaten run in the competition's history (P12 W10 D2).
- Ricardo Gareca will face Brazil for the 10th time (W2 L7), and the sixth in this competition (W1 L4). Peru are unbeaten in their past 12 Copa America games when Brazil were not their opponents (W6 D6).
- Brazil are the top-scoring team in this year's finals (11), eight of their goals coming in the second half and five in the last 15 minutes, each more than any other team in the competition.
- Peru are the team with the fewest shots on target among the semi-finalists (18), but they are second for shot conversion rate (16.3 per cent).

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