Neymar to eclipse Pele? It is now a matter of when, not if.

Touted as the heir to Pele's throne long ago, Neymar is only nine goals away from equalling the Brazil legend's record of 77 goals for the Selecao.

Neymar was on target as Brazil made it two wins from two games to start their Copa America defence with a 4-0 rout of Peru on Thursday, taking his international tally to 68 goals.

Often a maligned and criticised figure in the world of football due to his on-field antics – evident when the referee overturned a penalty after conducting a VAR check – there was no doubting Neymar's quality and standing within Brazilian football against Peru.

"It is obvious that for me it is a great honour to be part of the history of the Brazilian team," an emotional Neymar said post-match. "To be quite honest, my dream was always to play for the national team, to wear this shirt. I never imagined reaching those numbers.

"For me it's even exciting, because I went through a lot in these two years that are very difficult, complicated, and those numbers are nothing. The happiness I have to play for Brazil, to represent my country, my family."

Unfazed by the penalty reversal moments earlier, Neymar then popped up and fired a low long-range shot past Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese with 22 minutes remaining.

No one comes close to Neymar since his Brazil debut in 2010. The 29-year-old has scored 49 goals more than any of his international team-mates in that period.

While he only found the back of the net once, Neymar was at the heart of Brazil's big moments.

There were flicks, stepovers and moments of trademark Neymar flare – playing a key role in goals for Alex Sandro, Everton Ribeiro and Richarlison. He had a match-best three key passes and five total shots, to go with his game-high seven fouls won.

Neymar is at the centre of all things good about Tite's red-hot Brazil.

Since Tite took charge in 2016, Brazil have scored two-plus goals in 37 of the 56 games under the former Corinthians boss; 66 per cent of those games scoring more than one goal (W36 D1).

Prior to easing past Peru, Brazil had never lost in the 43 previous games overseen by head coach Tite when scoring the opening goal (W38 D5) in all competitions.

Tite's Brazil – building towards Qatar 2022 in pursuit of a coveted first World Cup crown since 2002 – have won nine consecutive games, keeping eight clean sheets.

Brazil has given the football world some of the best forwards and strikers to play the game – Pele, Ronaldo, Romario, Zico, Bebeto and others.

But Neymar is set to stand alone at the summit.

Brazil extended their winning run to nine games and made it two victories from two matches to start the Copa America with a 4-0 triumph over Peru on Thursday.

Alex Sandro fired defending champions Brazil ahead early before star team-mate Neymar added the second goal in the 68th minute, marking the fourth consecutive match he has scored for the Selecao. 

It was Neymar's 68th international goal as the Paris Saint-Germain forward closed within Pele's record of 77 for Brazil.

Everton Ribeiro and Richarlison completed the scoring during the closing stages in Rio de Janeiro, where the result continued Brazil's exceptional form under head coach Tite, having not conceded a goal in their past six games.

Peru, playing their Copa America opener, were dogged but created few genuine goal-scoring opportunities.

After Fred shot wide early, the Selecao took the lead in the 12th minute, when Neymar broke on the left with his cross finding Gabriel Jesus – who cut back for Alex Sandro to turn home from inside the six-yard box.

Brazil had never lost in the 43 previous games under Tite in all competitions when they had scored first, but Peru still forced their way into the game.

Danilo blocked Peru's first real chance from Christian Cueva's 39th-minute shot which had beaten the onrushing Ederson, shortly after Fabinho flashed a shot wide through a crowded penalty area.

Neymar thought he had won a penalty on the hour-mark when he fell under pressure from Renato Tapia, but referee Patricio Loustau reversed his original decision after a VAR check.

He did not need to wait long for his goal, collecting the ball just outside the box and drilling a low shot past Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.

Neymar set up half-time substitute Richarlison for a 73rd-minute chance saved by Gallese, while Peru substitute Alex Valera volleyed over a gilt-edged chance in the 79th minute.

Brazil scored a third goal as Neymar dashed forward, finding Richarlison on the left and the Everton star centred for Everton Ribeiro who forced home his maiden international goal in the final minute of regulation.

Richarlison added another in the third minute of stoppage time, finding the back of the net following a goal-mouth scramble after Gallese saved Roberto Firmino's initial effort from Neymar's neat throughball.

Brazil head into Thursday's Copa America clash with Peru with history firmly on their side.

Having taken on hosting duties at the last minute, Brazil started their Copa campaign with a win over Venezuela last time out.

Their second Group B game sees Tite's side take on Peru, who they beat 3-1 in Rio de Janeiro to clinch the trophy back in 2019.

While the Estadio de Maracana hosted the showdown on that occasion, Rio's less illustrious venue – Estadio Nilton Santos – is the location of this meeting, with Brazil boasting a record of seven wins, two draws and just one defeat from their last 10 matches against Peru.

Brazil are on a seven-match unbeaten run in the Copa America, with all of those games having been played on home soil across the last two editions of the competition.

Indeed, their last defeat in the tournament came against Peru back in 2016, though Brazil should be confident of maintaining their winning start.

Peru have only won one of their last nine games in total, though that did come in their prior match against Ecuador – the last team they had previously beaten were Brazil in a friendly in September 2019.

In his pre-match news conference, Brazil coach Tite confirmed there will be at least one change, with Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson coming in for Alisson.

"There are three goalkeepers of very high levels. Two are among the best in the world," said Tite. 

"Weverton has been doing a very high level of work in the Libertadores. We are working, doing the analysis together and in this game we decided for Ederson."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Neymar

If Brazil are going to defend their crown, they want their poster boy to be on top form. Neymar started well, scoring a penalty and setting up Gabigol's effort in the 3-0 win over Venezuela. He has also completed the most dribbles (six) of any player so far in the competition.

Peru – Gianluca Lapadula

Lapadula seems likely to lead Peru's line in Rio and comes into the game on the back of an impressive performance against Ecuador, in which he created both of the goals for Ricardo Gareca's team.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Peru are the last team that beat Brazil as a visitor in the Copa America – the Incas beat them 3-1 in the 1975 semi-final.
- Since then, Brazil have gone 21 games without a loss at home (13 wins, eight draws).
- Casemiro was the player who recovered the most balls on the first day of the Copa America (15, three more than Juan Cuadrado, his nearest challenger).
- Gareca will lead Peru for a fourth time in the Copa America – he is the coach with the most matches in charge of the national team in the competition (16).
- Brazil had 61.7 per cent possession against Venezuela, registering a pass accuracy of 89.1 per cent (from 550 passes in total). They had 18 attempts compared to three, with seven hitting the target.

Brazil head coach Tite lauded Neymar after the superstar inspired the Copa America champions to a 3-0 win against Venezuela in Sunday's curtain-raiser.

Neymar scored and was involved in the two other goals as Brazil kicked off their title defence in victorious fashion behind closed doors in Brasilia.

Marquinhos opened the scoring following Neymar's corner in the 23rd minute before the latter converted a penalty after the hour mark.

It was Neymar's 67th international goal – just 10 shy of Pele's all-time record. Since making his Brazil debut in August 2010, the Paris Saint-Germain forward has scored 48 more goals than any of his Selecao team-mates.

Neymar then provided the cross for substitute Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa to complete the scoring in the final minute of regulation as Tite refused to make comparisons with Brazil greats Ronaldo and Romario.

"When Neymar is well physically and well in his head, good things happen," Tite told reporters after the 29-year-old created seven chances against Venezuela – the most by any Brazil player in the Copa America since his international bow.

"When you have a player with the technical quality that he has, you gain in assist ability, with the left foot or with the right foot, and he becomes an unpredictable player.

"When you stop him in a more advanced position on the field of play it is better for him, because the opponents are afraid of making him an infraction in a dangerous place on the field, so we structure the team so that he receives fewer balls, but to do it in a more efficient way for the creation of the game.

"It would be an injustice to compare players from different eras, because the players of my generation were extraordinary, Neymar is also extraordinary, and a while ago Ronaldo and Romario were also extraordinary.

"There are different stages and moments, so you have to be very careful not to compare them."

Before Brazil's Copa America opener against Venezuela, there was a moment of silence to recognise the victims of the pandemic and those leading the fight against COVID-19.

It was a poignant scene. Somehow, it was made more powerful by the fact it was staged in front of thousands of empty seats at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, the fans kept away from matches at a tournament held in part as a distraction from the global health crisis.

Yet the Selecao's simple victory, secured through goals by Marquinhos, Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa, only compounded the uncomfortable feeling that, perhaps, this tournament shouldn't be taking place at all.

CONMEBOL's decision to remove the event from co-hosts Colombia and Argentina over concerns around civil unrest and coronavirus cases, and relocate it to a country struggling with both, was questionable to say the least. The Brazil squad certainly thought so, reluctantly taking part only after making it clear they were deeply unhappy with South American football's governing body. Head coach Tite decried it as a "politicised" decision.

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, protests erupted across the country against the handling of the pandemic by president Jair Bolsonaro, who has been criticised for playing down the severity of a virus that has killed more than 460,000 of his citizens. Then, just when Brazil had agreed to play, Sunday's opponents were struck by a surge of positive test results, wrecking their preparations for a match where few gave them a chance anyway.

So it was that the Brazil and Venezuela players stood arm in arm in the centre circle on Sunday, in silent tribute before those empty red seats, faceless reminders of the awful toll COVID-19 has taken. It felt like this was why these teams had gathered here, that the football match to follow was an afterthought.

There were still things to admire about the subsequent 90 minutes. A depleted Venezuela performed admirably to keep Brazil at arm's length for 23 minutes and rode their luck when Richarlison's touch let him down and Gabriel Jesus steered a header wide. It took a set-piece for Tite's mean to break through, Marquinhos bundling the ball in from Neymar's delivery.

Joel Graterol in the Vinotinto goal had kept the scoreline down but was beaten again just past the hour mark, Neymar side-stepping and stuttering his way to the penalty spot before slotting home international goal number 67 after a foul on Danilo. Brazil's number 10 would have had two more sublime solo goals had his shooting been a little more accurate; instead, he put a pinpoint cross into Gabriel's chest for 3-0 after another drive into the box.

The players celebrated their goals with gusto but, after the full-time whistle echoed around the arena, there were few cheers or beaming smiles. This was job done, formalities over, onto the next one. They retreated back down the tunnel. The eerie silence lingered.

Neymar was on target as Brazil opened their Copa America defence with a 3-0 win over Venezuela at Estadio Nacional on Sunday. 

Hosting the tournament after it had been moved from Colombia and Argentina amid political unrest in the former and a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the latter, Brazil were never troubled by a Venezuela side that had reported 12 positive coronavirus tests amongst their ranks earlier this week. 

Marquinhos got them on their way midway through the first half with his third international goal before Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Neymar doubled their advantage from the penalty spot in the 64th minute.

Brazil – who finished with 18 shots to Venezuela's three – added a third late on when substitute Gabriel Barbosa turned home a Neymar cross from close range.

Brazil started on the front foot and twice went close early on, Joel Graterol keeping out Richarlison and Eder Militao heading wide from a teasing Renan Lodi cross.

They were rewarded for their bright start in the 23rd minute when Marquinhos flicked home from close range after Neymar's corner had fallen kindly to him. 

Richarlison saw an effort ruled out for offside soon after, while Neymar dragged wide from a promising position as Brazil failed to extend their advantage before the interval.

Neymar was unable to steer home a Gabriel Jesus cross at the start of the second period, but he stroked home from the spot shortly after the hour mark after Danilo had been clipped in the area by Yohan Cumana. 

Late on Neymar turned provider for Brazil’s third in the 89th minute, rounding Graterol and crossing for Barbosa to chest home from almost on the line. 

What does it mean? Familiar home comforts for Tite's men

Brazil will face significantly tougher tests than the one posed by a depleted Venezuela side, but Tite will be pleased to see his side get off the mark with the minimum of fuss. 

The Selecao have now gone 21 Copa America games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W13 D8), while they have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted the tournament. Their rivals have been warned. 

Neymar sparkles for Brazil

The PSG forward was at his talismanic best, taking five shots and making a game-high seven key passes. He also competed in a whopping 17 duels – the most of any player on the pitch – and drew the most fouls (four) of any player.

Jesus struggles to make an impact

Jesus had just a solitary shot and failed to play a single key pass to a team-mate in what was an underwhelming display. Roberto Firmino might just fancy his chances of replacing him for Brazil's next game after this showing from the Manchester City man. 

What's next?

Both sides are in action again on Thursday, with Brazil facing Peru in Rio de Janeiro and Venezuela taking on Colombia in Goiania.

Brazil head coach Tite revealed the team asked for the Copa America not to be staged on home soil amid ongoing controversy regarding the showpiece South American tournament.

Defending champions Brazil will host coronavirus-hit Venezuela in the opening game of the Copa America on Sunday following initial concerns the Selecao would boycott the event.

Postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Copa America had been due to be shared between Colombia and Argentina, though both countries were removed as co-hosts following respective political and coronavirus issues.

Brazil was awarded hosting rights, despite being one of the countries worst hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

Captain Casemiro and the squad have already criticised CONMEBOL's decision to move the tournament to Brazil and those views have been amplified following news that 12 of Venezuela's travelling party tested positive for coronavirus.

With COVID-19 again casting a shadow over the Copa, Tite told reporters on the eve of the curtain-raiser: "I would like these problems not occurring, not only for Venezuela. The organisation is wrong and this is not political, but it is a direct criticism to CONMEBOL and whoever has defined this in the CBF [Brazilian Football Confederation] that the Copa America will be here, I did not ask for this.

"I do not have any political party and I did not have it throughout my career, I always voted for people and never for political parties. Not having political ideas, they politicised this situation, unfortunately. We chose to participate in the Copa America and be loyal, and the players and the coaching staff asked the president of the CBF before the Copa America was defined in Brazil. Before the president of the republic speaks, we told them that we would be loyal, out of respect for everything that is happening and on the one hand sentimental.

"We asked for some time before speaking publicly and the decision was already defined, this is the real thing and what I want to tell you. From that moment on we decided to express ourselves in a joint way and once it was defined we feel pride in our country, pride in representing the Brazilian national team and I am proud to be their coach, we are proud to be here. Please understand that it is not only black or white, there are also greys, there is the Brazilian national team and there is our discernment to choose to express our opinions outside of here.

"So, from the moment our opinions were contrary to the organisation of the Copa America and now we have to play, there are no excuses and we are going to play. We will take care of ourselves in the best possible way and we will adjust to our responsibilities."

Brazil have gone 20 Copa America games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W12 D8). Their previous defeat was a 3-1 loss to Peru in 1975.

Indeed the Selecao have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted, with an overall record of W26 D12 L2 – the other reverse coming versus Paraguay back in 1949.

As Brazil eye back-to-back Copa America trophies, Mineiro has been to the summit before.

Mineiro was part of the Selecao side that won the 2007 Copa America, defeating Argentina 3-0 to retain their CONMEBOL crown.

Brazil – led by Dunga – were far from favourites 14 years ago in Venezuela, where Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano were among the absentees.

But a team featuring Robinho, Julio Baptista and Dani Alves upstaged great rivals Argentina, who were boasting Lionel Messi, Javier Zanetti, Carlos Tevez, Juan Roman Riquelme, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Mascherano in Maracaibo.

"On that occasion we basically went to the competition with our reserve team," Mineiro – who started every match and went on to earn a move to Hertha Berlin following the Copa America success, before joining Chelsea – told Stats Perform. "As several of the main players could not take part in that edition of the tournament.

"At the beginning, people did not expect much from us, the media was in doubt about our potential. But we managed to grow as a team little by little and we showed our potential. The biggest challenge came in the final match. And we won the Copa America and brought another trophy to Brazil."

"We are a country of over 200 million inhabitants. And it is a big responsibility to wear the yellow shirt," said 24-time international Mineiro. "The pressure is very big. However, it is also an honour, a privilege and a dream come true for every youngster, for every professional player to be able to wear that shirt and represent the country.

"We knew it. We were aware of our limitations. We knew it would be a tough Copa America for us. But we were totally focused and united and that was crucial for us. As I said, we went step by step gaining confidence. We got stronger and found ourselves in the final and managed to win it. For every professional footballer it is an honour to wear Selecao's shirt. Regardless of the pressure you must deal with."

The pressure is on Tite's Brazil to keep their hands on the Copa America trophy this year, as they prepare to open the showpiece South American tournament against Venezuela on Sunday.

Brazil have won five of the last nine editions of the Copa America, including the most recent one in 2019, while the Selecao have a favourable record against seven of the nine other teams at this year's event.

Pressure is nothing new in a country, where football transcends everything else. It is a way of life. It is a special kind of pressure in a country of 200million people, when every boy grows up wanting to play for the Selecao.

Amid the huge weight of expectations, Mineiro said: "Brazil is a country where emotions normally speak higher than reasoning. It is a fact. The here and now normally defines your status, how good you are. In Brazil there is not much patience to wait for a job to be developed. This is the Brazilian style, it is cultural to want immediate results.

"As we are considered...well, at least this is my impression where I go, we are considered one of the best - if not the best - football country in the world. But we must change that mentality and learn to work in different scenarios. With or without pressure. When we wear the Selecao shirt, every fan and the media expect us to win the game and play beautiful football and reach great results."

Brazil will also face Peru – a rematch of the 2019 decider, Colombia and Ecuador in Group B of this year's Copa America.

"Whenever you go onto the pitch, no matter if that is for the national team or for your club, you always think of winning the game," the 45-year-old continued. "But the pressure is obviously higher at Selecao. And when you represent your country, the desire is always to fight and do a great job.

"But it is hard as the opponents are always motivated to get a positive result against Brazil. It has been like that for a long time. Brazil have difficulties to beat some sides, perhaps because of their big motivation when they face Brazil. Anyway, every player will always try to represent the Selecao in the best possible way."

All eyes will be on superstar Neymar, who is carrying the hopes of a football-mad nation.

Neymar has scored 66 goals for Brazil, second only to Pele (77). Since his Brazil debut in August 2010, the Paris Saint-Germain forward has scored 47 more goals than any team-mate (Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho, 18).

In 2020-21, Neymar completed 5.6 dribbles per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 – the best mark of any player in Europe's top-five leagues to play at least 1000 minutes. Since joining PSG in 2017, he ranks third in France's top flight for goals (56) and fourth for assists (31), despite ranking 177th for appearances (70).

For all of Neymar's brilliance, Mineiro believes Brazil must learn not rely on the former Barcelona superstar.

"Neymar is a great player. His quality and potential are undeniable. On several occasions Brazil depend on his performance to show great football. In my opinion, Brazil should have a plan B just in case Neymar is absent for some reason," added Mineiro.

"Brazil must learn to play as a team and make the most of the individual quality of every player. That way we would become a stronger, more competitive side. Then we would surprise other teams who will be prepared to cancel our main players."

Neymar and Everton's Richarlison have formed an impressive relationship in attack for Brazil, though Mineiro has his collective concerns for the South American powerhouse.

"I have been following Richarlison. He is an excellent player with a big potential," said Mineiro. "He is growing and is an important player for Selecao. There is something I am a bit worried about Selecao. We have good players but they do not play together frequently or have enough time to train together as the European national teams do.

"Germany, for instance, a team that I am able to follow closely, they do have more chances to be together either training or playing matches. More than Brazil. They know each other well and have more opportunities to be together either in their clubs or in competitions. That is an advantage for the European national teams. Therefore, as many training sessions or games we can have with our good players can only be good for Selecao."

Coronavirus again cast a shadow over the 2021 Copa America as Venezuela's preparations for their opening match versus Brazil were thrown into chaos.

The tournament has been moved from Colombia and Argentina to Brazil amid political unrest in the former nation and a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the latter.

Brazil has also suffered horribly during the pandemic, although calls to postpone the tournament have been resisted despite some players from the host nation voicing their opposition.

Now Venezuela's attempts to snap a run of eight winless Copa America encounters with the Selecao – who have won six in that streak - look set to be compromised after news that 12 of their travelling party have tested positive for coronavirus.

"The health department was notified by CONMEBOL that 12 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation, including players and coaching staff, tested positive for COVID-19," the secretary of state for Brasilia said in a statement, with the match set to take place at Estadio Nacional in the Brazilian capital.

 "They are all asymptomatic, isolated in single rooms and are being monitored."

The lack of any public statement on the matter from either CONMEBOL or the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF), means it is unclear how many of the 12 are players.

The Athletic reported at least five players, including captain Tomas Rincon had tested positive, with local reports in Venezuela suggesting a flight for 14 replacement players had been chartered.

Teams named provisional squads of up to 60 for the tournament to mitigate against the potential effects of COVID-19 outbreaks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Roberto Firmino

Firmino might have endured a mixed season as Liverpool ceded their Premier League crown, but Brazil boss Tite will be hopeful the forward rises to the occasion as he did on the way to glory in 2019. Firmino's five goal involvements (two goals, three assists) were more than any other player in the competition.

 

Venezuela – Yangel Herrera

In Rincon's expected absence, plenty of onus will fall upon Herrera's performance in Venezuela's engine room – assuming, of course, that he is available himself. Contracted to Manchester City, Herrera is one of the Premier League champions' loan army, having spent each of the past three seasons with New York City, Huesca and Granada respectively.

In LaLiga last term, he averaged 2.3 tackles and 10.2 duels won per 90 minutes for Granada – the latter statistic placing him second in the division among midfielders to have played 20 or more games.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil have gone 20 Copa America’s games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W12 D8). Their previous defeat was a 3-1 loss to Peru in 1975.
- Indeed the Selecao have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted, with an overall record of W26 D12 L2 – the other reverse coming versus Paraguay back in 1949.
- Venezuela's quarter-final exit against Argentina in the 2019 Copa America ended a three-match unbeaten run in the competition (W1 D2).
- This will be Venezuela's 20th Copa América appearance, the fewest of any CONMEBOL nation.

Before every major tournament, eyes are trained on the next generation of stars set to take the football world by storm.

This year's rescheduled Copa America is no different with the likes of Ecuador midfielder Moises Caicedo, Brazil right-back Emerson Royal and Colombia forward Jaminton Campaz on the scene.

But there is still no changing of the guard as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, among others, continue to dominate on the international stage.

Stats Perform looks at six players above the age of 30 and their eye-catching numbers heading into the 47th edition of the Copa America.

 

Lionel Messi, 33, Argentina

Messi enters the showpiece South American tournament on the back of another impressive club campaign. With 30 league goals in 2020-21, Barcelona superstar Messi has now recorded 25-plus goals in each his past 12 league seasons. Craving senior international silverware with La Albiceleste following runners-up appearances at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 and the World Cup in 2014, Messi scored 11 LaLiga goals direct following a ball carry last season – the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues. Following a third-placed finish in 2019, Messi – the country's all-time leading scorer with 72 goals, while only Javier Mascherano (147) has earned more caps than the six-time Ballon d'Or winner (144) – will be hoping this year's tournament delivers that much-coveted international prize. Argentina are in Group A alongside matchday one opponents Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Luis Suarez, 34, Uruguay

Suarez upstaged close friend Messi in 2020-21 after swapping Barca for Atletico Madrid. Having been forced out of Camp Nou amid concerns his best years were behind him, veteran forward Suarez found vindication and the ultimate revenge by leading to Atletico Madrid to LaLiga glory. His 21 goals were worth 21 points last season – the most of any player in the competition. Since 2011-12, only Messi (492) and Cristiano Ronaldo (411) have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top-five leagues than Suarez (325 – 233 goals and 92 assists). Uruguay's all-time leading goalscorer (63), Suarez is far from a spent force as Oscar Tabarez's side – who are scheduled to open their campaign against Argentina – fight to win a first Copa America crown since 2011. Suarez has been directly involved in nine goals in 10 games at the Copa America (six goals and three assists).

Edinson Cavani, 34, Uruguay

Cavani and Suarez are the face of a generation that delivered the 2011 title, finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup and reached the quarter-finals at Russia 2018. Cavani joined Manchester United on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain at the beginning of 2020-21 and made an immediate impact at Old Trafford, finishing the season with 10 Premier League goals and 17 across all competitions – his minutes per goal ratio both in the Premier League and in all competitions the best among his team-mates (137 and 128). In the Europa League final loss to Villarreal, Cavani became just the third player aged 34 or above to score in a major European decider for an English club, after Gary McAllister (36) for Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final against Deportivo Alaves in 2000-01 and Didier Drogba (34) for Chelsea in the Champions League final versus Bayern Munich in 2011-12. Only Suarez has scored more goals for Uruguay than Cavani (51 in 118 appearances), who earned a new deal in Manchester.

Alexis Sanchez, 32, Chile

Sanchez's club career had been on a steep decline since he left Arsenal for Premier League rivals United in 2018. But the Chile star has enjoyed success at Inter. Although a squad player under former Nerazzurri coach Antonio Conte, Sanchez – who joined Inter permanently last year – scored seven goals and supplied five assists in just 12 starts last term. An option in place of regular starting duo Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, Sanchez ranked better in shooting accuracy excluding blocks (69.6 per cent), passing accuracy (80.0), passing accuracy ending in the final third (73.5) and dribbled success rate (60.0) than both men. His big chance conversion rate (50.0) was only second to Lukaku, likewise his shot conversion rate (24.1). At international level, there is no disputing his role for Chile after leading La Roja to Copa America success in 2015 and 2016. Chile's most capped player (138) and leading goalscorer (46), Sanchez will once again carry the weight of his country this month.

Marcelo Martins, 33, Bolivia

The heart and soul of a nation? Look no further than Martins. The iconic forward stands alone as Bolivia's record holder for goals (25 in 83 appearances). Of those, 18 have come in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, also making Martins Bolivia's top scorer in that competition. Currently playing his football for Cruzeiro in Brazil, Martins scored three goals in the two qualifiers immediately prior to the Copa America, helping his side to earn four points. With their talisman leading the line, Bolivia – who won their only Copa America title on home soil in 1963 and lost the final when they hosted again in 1997 – are seeking to advance from the group stage for the first time since 2015. They start against Paraguay.

Paolo Guerrero, 37, Peru

Like Martins in Bolivia, Guerrero epitomises Peruvian football. The success of Peru has long been linked to the striker, who is in the history books for the most goals (38) for La Blanquirroja. Having debuted in 2004, this will be the captain's sixth Copa America appearance, having guided two-time winners Peru to third place in the 2011 and 2015 editions before securing a runners-up medal in 2019 – finishing as top scorer in all three of those tournaments. Guerrero is now the leading Copa America scorer in among active players (14) and only three shy of the all-time record (Norberto Mendez and Zizinho, both 17). While in the twilight of his career, Ricardo Gareca and Peru – who will come up against Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela – will be leaning on his experience across the border in Brazil.

Thiago Silva, 36, Brazil

There were some doubts about Silva's suitability to the Premier League when he saw out his PSG contract and opted to test himself with Chelsea. But the star centre-back did not look out of place in England, despite his advancing years, ending the campaign as a Champions League winner for the first time in his career. In all competitions in 2020-21, Silva led Chelsea in passing accuracy (93.0 per cent). He became Chelsea's oldest player (36 years and 249 days) to appear in a major European final, overtaking Claude Makelele against United in the 2008 Champions League decider (35 years and 93 days) as the Blues trumped Manchester City in Porto. The Selecao captain now turns his attention to Brazil's bid to claim back-to-back Copa America trophies. They have won five of the past nine.

At long last, after a 12-month delay and then so much uncertainty over the past few weeks, Copa America will start this weekend.

While the fact it is going ahead remains a bone of contention, with even Brazil players suggesting they are reluctantly playing it, Copa America is a tournament that rarely disappoints in terms of entertainment.

A bevvy of world-renowned stars such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will be hoping to make the difference.

There will also be some less-familiar faces hoping to either establish themselves or introduce their names to a wider audience.

Stats Perform has identified seven players worth keeping an eye on over the next month.

Rodrigo de Paul, 27, central midfielder - Argentina

Perhaps the odd one out here given his age, but De Paul is certainly one to keep tabs on. Having just enjoyed a wonderful individual campaign with Udinese, the creative midfielder is eager on a move and will surely be keen to impress.

He had a hand in 18 Serie A goals this term (nine goals, nine assists), while his xA value (expected assists) of 10.3 was the best in the division, the 1.3 differential suggesting De Paul was occasionally let down by poor finishing.

Further to that, he also attempted (191) and completed (122) more dribbles than anyone else, so Argentina will look to him to drive them forward from midfield.

Moises Caicedo, 19, central midfielder - Ecuador

Caicedo joined Brighton and Hove Albion in January to much fanfare from South American experts, who assured Seagulls fans they were getting a future superstar.

He's yet to make a senior appearance in England, with Graham Potter patient regarding his adaptation, but the Copa America could give fans a chance to see him in action.

A well-rounded, all-action midfielder, Caicedo was the teenager with the most goals (four), shots attempted (24), chances created (19), successful passes (748) and dribbles completed (23) in Ecuador's top flight in 2020, while his passing accuracy of 90.1 per cent was the highest among players to attempt 500 or more.

Emerson Royal, 22, right-back - Brazil

An impressive two-year spell at Real Betis has persuaded Barcelona to bring Emerson back to Camp Nou after a complicated three-way transfer in 2019.

He has proven himself to be both a dependable defender and a capable attacking outlet, his 10 assists over the past two seasons bettered by only one LaLiga defender (Jesus Navas, 13), while his 853 duels over the past two years is nearly 200 more than any other defender.

This paints a picture of an all-action defender who will work tirelessly up and down the right flank, and on the evidence of the past couple of years, it shouldn't take him too long to usurp Danilo as Brazil's primary option.

Yangel Herrera, 23, central midfielder - Venezuela

A long-term future for Herrera and parent club Manchester City looks unlikely, but he enjoyed a promising season with Granada in LaLiga – that coupled with a breakout tournament in Brazil could lead to promising suitors making their feelings known.

Herrera's a hard-working midfielder who made more tackle attempts (59) than any other Granada player this term, while it was a similar story with regards to duels (509) and duels won (261). Don't expect him to create much, but he's not shy about getting stuck in.

Jaminton Campaz, 21, left-winger - Colombia

Arguably the next big hope of the Colombian national team, Campaz only received his first call-up this month for the recent World Cup qualifiers. Although he did not get on the pitch, his inclusion in the squad was well-received among fans.

Colombia great Carlos Valderrama was among them as he urged the 21-year-old to grasp the opportunity in a post on his official Twitter account.

A livewire on the left flank, Colombia may look to his explosiveness and trickery should games remain tight in the latter stages.

Julio Enciso, 17, attacking midfielder - Paraguay

The youngest player at the 2021 Copa America, Enciso has already played 24 top-flight matches back home for Libertad and was briefly the youngest player to score in the Copa Libertadores this century with his goal against Jorge Wilstermann last year when still 16.

A good dribbler and not shy to take a shot, Enciso has been used almost everywhere across the front for Libertad and could be an interesting wildcard option for Paraguay.

Carlos Palacios, 20, right-winger - Chile

Earlier this year, Palacios made the jump to Brazil when he joined Internacional on loan from Union Espanola, where he had developed into one of Chile's most-promising young players as a lively winger.

While he's yet to score for his new club, he proved in Chile that he has a penchant for a spectacular goal one or two, while his regular appearances for Internacional have exposed him to a far greater standard of football.

Brazil's squad said they are "against" the Copa America but will not boycott the upcoming South American showpiece.

The Copa America is scheduled to get underway on Sunday, but the tournament has been overshadowed by controversy and uncertainty after CONMEBOL relocated the event to Brazil.

Postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Copa America had been due to be shared between Colombia and Argentina, though both countries were removed as co-hosts following respective political and COVID-19 issues.

Brazil was awarded hosting rights, despite being one of the country's worst hit by the coronavirus crisis.

Selecao captain Casemiro suggested the entire team were against hosting the Copa America on home soil, with head coach Tite promising more would be revealed following Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Paraguay.

After Neymar and Lucas Paqueta preserved Brazil's perfect qualifying record with a 2-0 win away from home, the squad stated their intentions in a statement via social media while criticising CONMEBOL.

"For different reasons, be they humanitarian or professional, we are not satisfied with the way the Copa America has been handled by CONMEBOL," the players said.

"All the recent facts lead us to believe in an inadequate process in realising [the tournament]."

Defending champions Brazil are scheduled to open the Copa America against Venezuela in Brasilia on Sunday.

Tite's Brazil are in Group B for the Copa America, alongside Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.

"We are workers, professional footballers. We have a mission to take with the historic green and yellow shirt that won the World Cup five times," the statement continued.

"We are against the organisation of the Copa America but we will never say no to playing for Brazil."

Amid the uncertainty, the future of Tite has also been called into question due to the stance of the squad.

But Tite told reporters post-match: "I am not a hypocrite. I am not aloof and I know what is happening. But I know what the priority is. The priority is my work and the dignity of my work."

Tite was reluctant to discuss the stance of his players regarding the Copa America following his historic outing against Paraguay.

Brazil boss tite has never lost in World Cup qualifying (W16 D2) – the longest unbeaten sequence for a coach of any national team in CONMEBOL history after the Selecao won in Paraguay for the first time since 1985.

Brazil made it six wins from six games in World Cup qualifying after Neymar's goal and Lucas Paqueta's late strike secured a 2-0 win over Paraguay.

Neymar broke the deadlock in the fourth minute before substitute Paqueta completed the scoring in the third minute of stoppage time as Brazil preserved their 100 per cent record in CONMEBOL qualifying on Tuesday.

A 67th international goal for Neymar – only 10 adrift of all-time record holder Pele – helped send Brazil six points clear of rivals Argentina atop the standings on the road to Qatar 2022.

Brazil entered the contest away to Paraguay amid continued uncertainty over the scheduled Copa America and their participation, with the Selecao squad united in their opposition of hosting the showpiece tournament on home soil.

On the field, Tite's Brazil impressed and quickly stamped their authority on the match thanks to star Neymar in Asuncion.

Neymar put Brazil ahead with a simple side-footed finish in the fourth minute after Richarlison scuppered his attempt to volley Gabriel Jesus' cross.

It was a good omen for Brazil, with the Copa America champions winning all eight of their previous games in which the Paris Saint-Germain forward had scored in World Cup qualifiers.

A ferocious long-range strike from Paraguay defender Omar Alderete almost restored parity four minutes later but Brazil goalkeeper Ederson was forced into a stunning save.

Richarlison, who almost added a second goal in the 12th minute, put the ball in the back of the net with a brilliant half-volley in the second minute of stoppage time but it was ruled out for offside.

The tempo dropped in the second half however Marquinhos went close to doubling Brazil's lead, with his header sailing just wide of the post in the 55th minute.

Richarlison was in the thick of the action with 20 minutes remaining following a dazzling run into the box however he was thwarted by Paraguay, but Paqueta struck in the 93rd minute to make sure of the points.

 

What does it mean? All eyes on Copa America

After extending their winning streak to seven matches, attention will now shift to the scheduled Copa America. It remains to be seen whether Tite's men will take part, with the event set to start on Sunday.

Clean sheet specialists

Amid their winning run, Brazil – who have not lost since their 1-0 friendly defeat to Argentina in 2019 – have only conceded two goals, keeping six clean sheets in the process.

Winless Paraguay

While Paraguay only lost by one goal, they never really troubled Brazil. Eduardo Berizzo's men have now gone four matches without a win, claiming just one victory from their six qualifiers to date.

What's next?

Brazil are scheduled to face Venezuela in the Copa America curtain-raiser on Sunday, while Paraguay are due to meet Bolivia on Monday.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni said La Albiceleste are preparing for the Copa America to go ahead amid uncertainty, though he still has concerns.

The Copa America is scheduled to get underway in Brazil on Sunday after CONMEBOL controversially removed Argentina and Colombia as co-hosts due to respective political and coronavirus issues.

Brazil were awarded hosting duties, despite being one of the country's worst hit by the COVID-19 health crisis, and Scaloni has already voiced his disapproval of CONMEBOL's decision.

Tite's Brazil are reluctant to host the showpiece South American tournament, with the squad set to shed more light following Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Paraguay.

Argentina are also gearing up for a World Cup qualifier away to Colombia before their scheduled Copa America opener against Chile on Monday.

"We know what everyone knows, for now it is being played and we are aware of that," Scaloni told reporters, with Argentina out to maintain their unbeaten record in qualifying on the road to Qatar 2022.

"Now we are focused on the game with Colombia and after this we will surely focus on what is coming."

"We wanted to base ourselves in our training camp, they authorised it and for us it is a great peace of mind," added Scaloni.

"I don't know what will happen after the playoff games are over, but it is very important for us to stay at home.

"What will happen from tomorrow I don't know, we are calm. But the worrying aspect is still there."

Lionel Messi was on target as Argentina drew 1-1 with Chile in Thursday's World Cup qualifying fixture.

Messi – who also struck the woodwork on more than one occasion – converted a first-half penalty before Alexis Sanchez restored parity for Chile.

On Messi, Scaloni said: "Messi's always marked by two or three people. We are planning on doing something which we have not been doing in the last games. Hopefully we can do it.

"We will have to see what Colombia does. They are the hosts, they just won in a convincing fashion and we will see if they have the same team. Messi being marked is something that we assume."

Interim Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Antonio Carlos Nunes said head coach Tite will not be sacked amid uncertainty over the Copa America.

The 2021 Copa America is scheduled to take place in Brazil, starting on Sunday, following CONMEBOL's decision to relocate the event from Argentina and Colombia, though it remains to be seen whether the Selecao will take part.

Tite has said Brazil will state their intentions following Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Paraguay, while captain Casemiro suggested the entire squad are united against hosting the Copa America amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There have been some calls for Tite to be replaced due to the uncertainty but Nunes – who has taken charge of the CBF after the governing body's ethics committee suspended Rogerio Caboclo for 30 days – does not plan to make changes.

"I say it like this: aren't we winning? We won Copa America in 2019," Nunes told O Liberal. "And now we are almost qualified for the World Cup.

"… As the saying goes, you don't change a team that is winning.

"I am a friend of Tite's. I couldn't speak with Tite on Sunday. I wanted to tell him the decisions are with me now. I like his work very much, he is serious."

Nunes also endorsed the Copa America being staged in Brazil, adding: "Our first objective is to qualify for the World Cup. Brazil has never been out of a World Cup. 

"Regarding Copa America, neither Colombia nor Argentina wanted to do it because of the pandemic. CONMEBOL sought out the Brazil president [Jair Bolsonaro] and he readily accepted. 

"It has the approval of the president of the republic. I had to talk to the president of the republic. This referral is right. There are things to be resolved."

Amid the ongoing speculation and controversy surrounding Brazilian football, Tite – whose team boast a perfect record after five matches in World Cup qualifying – told reporters on Monday: "My judgment, my scale of values, my ethical side and my education say that I do not heed the rumours that are said.

"I have a lot of respect for my work and the Brazilian national team and I also have a lot of respect for these qualifiers for the World Cup, and the best way to repay all that trust to the people who are in my favour and those who are against me, it is to make the selection play well and be able to win.

"This is my attribution and my place and that is what I am going to do."

"The work we do to achieve good results is very difficult, so what for some may be priority or important things, for us at this time does not have that priority," Tite continued.

"Casemiro said the things he had to say regarding the whole situation that leads to the Copa America. When the FIFA and qualifying dates are over, we will very calmly clarify the whole situation, but for now respect our time and our work."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.