Colombia striker Luis Muriel expects Venezuela to be a fierce opponent as Reinaldo Rueda's side look to build on their opening victory in the Copa America.

Edwin Cardona scored the only goal of the game as Colombia kicked off their Group B campaign with a 1-0 win over Ecuador.

Los Cafeteros will be expected to win by a more handsome margin when they meet Venezuela in Goiania.

Colombia have not lost to Venezuela since the 2015 Copa America and face a side still missing key players after their squad was hit by a coronavirus outbreak prior to a 3-0 opening loss to Brazil.

But Muriel was impressed by what he saw from Venezuela even in defeat, and does not anticipate Colombia having it all their own way.

"The game against Ecuador was very difficult, the pitch helped little," Muriel told a media conference. 

"It helped them a lot in the pressure they exert. Venezuela lets you play a little more. 

"Venezuela showed despite all the casualties a great game against Brazil and against us it will be a fierce and hard game. 

"I strive every day to improve, we want to continue building a great team. We are going to seek the victory that will put us in the next phase."

Though Tomas Rincon and Romulo Otero are sidelined having contracted COVID-19, midfielder Yangel Herrera appears poised to return to the fold for Venezuela.

On loan from Manchester City, Herrera should help Venezuela break up play in midfield, having won possession 145 times for Granada last season, more than any other player for the LaLiga side.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Colombia - Miguel Borja

Borja supplied the assist for Cardona's winner and, if he keeps his place up front, should gain significant attention from the Venezuela defence given his goalscoring record in the Copa Libertadores this season.

He has scored six goals in eight games in this season's competition and, though his goals could not help Junior progress from the group stage, he has the firepower to help take Colombia deep into the knockout stages.

Venezuela - Cristian Casseres Jr

Arguably Venezuela's standout player in their defeat to Brazil, Casseres created two chances in the 3-0 loss and was also credited with two good crosses. The New York Red Bulls midfielder could be Venezuela's best creative outlet.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Colombia and Venezuela will meet again in a Copa America after two editions without facing each other (2016 and 2019). The record favours the Cafeteros (4W, 1L, 1D), but the Vinotinto won the last clash (1-0, in Chile 2015).

- Colombia are undefeated in six games without conceding goals in the Copa America (5W 1D). It is their third-longest unbeaten streak in the competition and the second-longest without conceding (eight, between 2001 and 2004).

- Venezuela will play their 10th Copa America match under the leadership of a European coach and will seek its first victory (2D, 7L). Jose Peseiro, Portuguese coach of the Vinotinto, is the third coach from Europe to lead Venezuela in the competition: the other two are Rafael Santana, from Spain, and Ratomir Dujkovic, from the former Yugoslavia.

- Venezuela had the fewest shots on target in the first matchday of the Copa America: in the loss against Brazil they shot at goal just once, through Luis del Pino.

Lionel Messi said Argentina lacked control while bemoaning the state of the pitch in their Copa America draw against Chile.

Messi scored a stunning free-kick in the first half but it was not enough as Chile salvaged a 1-1 draw in the Group A encounter in Rio de Janeiro on Monday.

Superstar captain Messi converted his first free-kick for Argentina since November 2016 – after 1,672 days – after curling his set-piece past Claudio Bravo in the 33rd minute.

Chile star Arturo Vidal was awarded a penalty for a rash challenge from Nicolas Tagliafico after referee Wilmar Roldan checked the pitch-side monitor and although the midfielder's penalty was brilliantly tipped against the crossbar by Emiliano Martinez, Eduardo Vargas nodded in following up approaching the hour mark.

"I think the penalty kick and when they draw gave them peace of mind, they started to handle the ball, we couldn't have it and the game got complicated for us," Messi, who scored his third Copa free-kick, said post-match.

"When we were in advantage we could not sustain the result, the playing field did not help us and we lacked control of the ball and to play faster, which they did when they managed to draw level. I did not see the penalty, but clearly it changed the game."

Argentina – runners-up in 2015 and 2016 – had their best expected goals (xG of 2.82) in a game under head coach Lionel Scaloni in World Cup qualifiers or Copa America, but they scored only one direct free-kick goal.

"We wanted to start winning, it was important to get the victory," Messi said. "We played against a very difficult opponent and now we will do it against Uruguay, another very difficult and even game.

"They are two very tough games to start the cup, that's why we wanted to start winning today."

Chile goalkeeper Bravo added: "[Messi] has a punch that not everyone has, a different precision than the rest.

"In the [World Cup] qualifiers it was my turn to come out victorious and today I had to suffer it, but football is like that and you enjoy when you have great players on the other side and who put difficult challenges on you, as well as my mission is to make things difficult for your opponent.

"I think the essential thing is that today we compete very well and this fills us with enthusiasm for what lies ahead."

Angel Romero scored twice as Paraguay produced a second-half comeback to claim a 3-1 win over a depleted 10-man Bolivia in their opening game at the Copa America.

La Albirroja were favoured to see off Bolivia, who were without three players – including captain and talisman Marcelo Martins after testing positive for coronavirus.

Bolivia, who have only progressed beyond the Copa America group stage once since finishing runners-up in 1997, took a shock early lead from Erwin Saavedra's 10th-minute penalty on Monday.

Paraguay piled on the pressure for no reward in the first half, before Bolivia were reduced to 10 men on the stroke of half-time following Jaume Cuellar's second booking in Goiania, Goias.

The weight of pressure told in the second half as Alejandro Romero levelled before Paraguay team-mate Angel Romero scored a brace to seal the win.

Paraguay flew out of the blocks as Santiago Arzamendia forced an acrobatic save from Bolivia goalkeeper Ruben Cordano inside the first minute, with Angel Romero flashing wide from the ensuing corner.

But Bolivia took the lead, albeit after a lengthy delay as referee Diego Haro consulted VAR, when Diego Bejarano's goal-bound volley hit Arzamendia's outstretched arm, with Saavedra converting from the spot.

Paraguay thought they had the chance to draw level when Haro pointed to the spot again after Cordano hacked down Gabriel Avalos inside the box, but again, La Albirroja were denied by the VAR after another long delay as Romero was offside in the build-up.

Alejandro Romero inexplicably pushed wide from close range in the 43rd minute, before Bolivia teenager Cuellar saw red for a second bookable offence.

Paraguay kept up the pressure after the break, with Alejandro Romero hitting the woodwork, though he equalised via an excellent 62nd-minute volley from outside the box.

Minutes later Paraguay were ahead, with Cordano unable to hold substitute Carlos Gonzalez's header and Angel Romero swooping to force home the loose ball.

Paraguay keeper Antony Silva had to be alert to a 78th-minute Roberto Fernandez strike, before Angel Romero netted his second, slotting home from Avalos' pass.

It was a modest record for a player as magnificent as Lionel Messi: three games, two final defeats, one red card, no goals.

But the Barcelona great's Copa America performances against Chile prior to Monday's curtain-raising clash were not entirely out of keeping with the rest of his Argentina career.

There have been moments of magic, of course, but just 15 goals across 46 Copa America and World Cup appearances ahead of this game. Meanwhile, not since 2007-08 has Messi fallen short of averaging a goal every two games for Barca, let alone one every three.

Even Messi himself could not reasonably argue his international displays have come close to the standard set at club level.

And while World Cup failures will always remain at the forefront of any such discussion – his achievements in contrast to Diego Maradona's one-man show in 1986 – the Copa America has provided its fair share of pain.

The final defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2016 were among three for Messi and four for Argentina since their 14th and most recent title in 1993.

Those two in consecutive years both came courtesy of penalty shoot-outs. Messi scored his spot-kick in the first match but missed the following year, setting his side on their way to another sore setback.

It was fitting then, it seemed, that this latest campaign – surely one of Messi's last – would start against Chile and initially start in much more encouraging fashion.

Neymar had set the standard against Venezuela the previous day.

In front of empty, hushed stands that make it impossible to ignore the influence of politics in football – a popular topic of debate in 2021 – the pace was ponderous until the world's most expensive footballer got to work.

Neymar scored one and created another in a 3-0 Brazil win. Along with five shots, he created seven chances – the most of any Selecao player in a Copa America match since his debut.

It took 33 minutes, in which the absence of an atmosphere again jarred, but Messi rose to that challenge when presented with a free-kick in a central position, dipped over the wall and beyond the grasp of Claudio Bravo.

That was one of seven Messi shots and he played four key passes, too. On paper, this ranked alongside Neymar's efforts.

 

By full-time, though, it was a frustratingly familiar tale, as the supporting cast proved unable to suitably assist their superstar.

Messi's excellence has excused a whole generation of Argentina internationals, absolved of blame because their great number 10 should have been able to win major tournaments alone.

Too many hugely talented players have misfired on the big stage; Lionel Scaloni sent out some past and present examples.

Lautaro Martinez is supposed to be the face of a young, new team. He had 11 goals in 23 prior internationals and should have added to that tally more than once in Rio de Janeiro.

The Inter forward failed to hit the target with any of his three attempts and optimistically appealed for a foul following two of them when he inexplicably missed from point-blank range.

And Martinez's frustration unfortunately came to the fore after 62 minutes when he lunged into an awful challenge on Charles Aranguiz under the nose of the referee and escaped with a booking.

The 23-year-old's evening might have ended early with a red card. Instead, it was cut short by the introduction of Sergio Aguero.

Chile had equalised five minutes prior to Martinez's moment of madness, one of a series of rash attempted tackles punished as a VAR review found Nicolas Tagliafico had made contact with Arturo Vidal in the area.

Vidal took the penalty and Emiliano Martinez turned it onto the crossbar, but Eduardo Vargas was on hand to nod in his 13th Copa America goal – staying three clear of Messi and climbing into the top 10 all-time.

Aguero followed Angel Di Maria onto the pitch as Argentina sought a response. Both players were not so long ago out of the picture under Scaloni, having previously been part of the Messi-led team that repeatedly came up short.

In each Chile final, Di Maria started. Aguero was introduced from the bench in one and in the XI for the other.

As on those occasions, there were no heroics from either on Monday. Di Maria, now 33, had two shots but neither troubled Bravo. Aguero, also 33, was caught offside once.

Messi will be the story if Argentina do not deliver silverware in the coming weeks, just as he will be should they finally get over the hump.

But the same problems persist. When Messi's free-kick set the stage, it was Martinez who could not step up, underwhelming again like too many past Argentina attackers.

If this is to be the tournament in which Messi reaches his promised land, he is going to need some help.

A sublime Lionel Messi free-kick was not enough for Argentina to start the Copa America with a victory as Chile striker Eduardo Vargas salvaged a 1-1 draw.

Argentina had much the better of the first half and mercurial captain Messi put them in front with a brilliant free-kick in the Group B encounter at Estadio Nilton Santos.

Vargas came to Chile's rescue after the break, heading home the rebound after Emiliano Martinez saved Arturo Vidal's penalty.

Nicolas Gonzalez was particularly wasteful as Argentina were unable to secure what would have been a deserved victory in Rio de Janeiro on Monday.

Messi is yet to win a trophy with Argentina following back-to-back runners-up performances at the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, having also fallen short in the 2007 final against Brazil.

Giovani Lo Celso was Chile's chief tormentor in a promising start from the Albiceleste, setting up chances that Lautaro Martinez and Gonzalez were unable to take.

Gonzalez headed over the crossbar after his shot was palmed away by Claudio Bravo and the forward also failed to beat the Chile goalkeeper with a tame finish when the lively Lo Celso sent him clear with an incisive pass.

Messi produced yet another moment of magic to put Argentina in front, though, bending a brilliant free-kick into the top-right corner after 33 minutes.

An unmarked Martinez spurned a glorious chance to add a second when he scuffed a shot wide and Lionel Scaloni's side were made to pay for their profligacy when Chile levelled 12 minutes into the second half.

Vidal was awarded a spot-kick for a rash challenge from Nicolas Tagliafico after referee Wilmar Roldan checked the pitchside monitor and although the midfielder's penalty was brilliantly tipped against the crossbar by Martinez, Vargas nodded in following up.

Bravo palmed away Messi's drive 20 minutes from time and Gonzalez headed over the bar when his skipper presented him with another golden opportunity in a frustrating start for Argentina.

Lionel Messi admitted he is concerned about the coronavirus situation as the superstar captain targets a long-awaited title with Argentina at the Copa America.

Messi's Argentina will open their Copa America campaign against rivals Chile in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Monday.

Brazil is hosting the Copa after CONMEBOL controversially removed Argentina and Colombia as co-hosts due to respective political and COVID-19 issues.

Despite being one of the country's worst hit by the coronavirus health crisis, Brazil was awarded hosting duties for this year's showpiece event, which was already pushed back a year because of COVID-19.

Defending champions Brazil won 3-0 on Sunday against a Venezuela side that had reported 12 positive coronavirus tests amongst their ranks earlier in the week.

Speaking on the eve of Argentina's first match, Messi told reporters: "We are concerned about the situation because it is a risk for all of us to catch COVID-19.

"Although we try to take care of ourselves and do everything they tell us is not easy, because then these things happen and we face other national teams where there is a risk of contagion.

"We will try to do our best so that it does not happen to us, but this does not depend only on us and anything can happen."

Despite his remarkable Barcelona success, Messi is yet to win a senior trophy with Argentina following back-to-back runners-up performances at the Copa America 2015 and 2016, having also fallen short in the 2007 final against Brazil.

La Albiceleste and six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi also lost in the 2014 World Cup decider – beaten by Germany.

"I always said that I am available to try to be with the national team and give my best," the 33-year-old Messi said.

"My biggest dream is to achieve something with the Argentina, I was close many times and unfortunately it was not given to me, but I will try to keep looking for it until it is given to me.

"If the coach who is there thinks that I can continue contributing to the team, I will always want to be there and fight for that dream. I was lucky to win everything with my club and individually, and it would be very nice to win something with the national team."

Messi was directly involved in 50 goals (38 scored, 12 assisted) in 47 games for Barca in 2020-21. Only three players in Europe's top-five leagues managed more.

He has now recorded 25-plus goals in each his past 12 league seasons, while the veteran scored 11 LaLiga goals direct following a ball carry last season – the most of any player in Europe's top-five leagues.

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."

Colombia exacted revenge after opening their 2021 Copa America campaign with a 1-0 win over Ecuador on Sunday.

Ecuador had remarkably routed Colombia 6-1 in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in November but there was no repeat of that result in Cuiaba.

In a move straight from the training pitch, Edwin Cardona capped a stunning set-piece move with a 42nd-minute volley – awarded after initially being ruled offside – to give Colombia the perfect start in Group B after defending champions and hosts Brazil eased past Venezuela in the curtain-raiser.

It was an uninspiring first half at Arena Pantanal, where both teams struggled to create anything in the final third of the pitch.

Ecuador did not record a shot on target in the opening half, though David Ospina was forced to get down low to the feet of Enner Valencia to thwart the former West Ham and Everton forward in the sixth minute.

Just as the half was petering out, Reinaldo Rueda's Colombia struck prior to the interval, thanks to help from VAR.

Some lovely one-touch passing following a set-piece released Cardona, who volleyed into the net, but the flag was quicky raised for offside.

However, the decision was overturned and Colombia were awarded the goal after a VAR review – Miguel Borja was found to be in an onside position when he headed the ball down to Cardona.

Colombia goalkeeper Ospina made his first real significant save of the match eight minutes into the second half, turning the ball away for a corner as Ecuador finally recorded a shot on target.

Ecuador continued to push numbers forward, but they never really troubled Colombia or Ospina.

 

What does it mean? Colombia continue Copa dominance

Colombia have now beaten Ecuador in their past eight meetings at the Copa America, keeping clean sheets in six of them and restricting Ecuador to only two goals across those matches. La Tricolor are also unbeaten in normal time in their past six games at the Copa, keeping clean sheets in each of them (W5 D1).

Borja in career first

After teeing up Cardona brilliantly, Borja has now been involved in Colombia goals in back-to-back games for the first time in his career, having also scored the equaliser against Argentina in World Cup qualifying.

Ecuador's wait goes on

Ecuador have not beaten a CONMEBOL opponent at the tournament since 2001, their 4-0 defeat of Venezuela followed by a 13-game winless run in such matches. Ecuador's only wins in the intervening period have been against CONCACAF pair Mexico and Haiti. Ecuador are also in the midst of a three-match losing streak in all competitions.

What's next?

Colombia will face Venezuela in Goiania on Thursday, while Ecuador's next fixture is also against La Vinotinto but in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

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.

Lionel Messi begins his latest quest for international glory on Monday when Argentina start their Copa America campaign against Chile.

Twice a losing finalist in 2015 and 2016 - each time to Chile - the Albiceleste came third at the tournament two years ago after losing in the semi-finals to Brazil.

While they did at least defeat La Roja in that bronze-medal match, those two penalty shoot-out losses were tough to swallow for Messi, who has been unable to match his remarkable club success for his country.

Only Uruguay (15) have won this tournament more often than Argentina (14), but their last title came in 1993 and they have lost four consecutive finals, having also been beaten in 2004 and 2007.

Argentina hold the records for both most goals scored (462) and most appearances (195) in the history of the Copa America and can at least feel buoyed by the fact they have not lost a match since that 2-0 defeat to Brazil in the last four in 2019.

They drew with Chile and Colombia in their most recent matches in World Cup qualifying, each time after taking the lead, but there appears to be a growing belief within the squad around coach Lionel Scaloni's ideas.

"The truth is the team is really well, the group is really well. We're getting to know each other more and consolidating the coaching staff's idea," Giovani Lo Celso said this week, as per Ole.

"As we know, all South American teams and matches are very difficult. It's all very balanced, very competitive and we know there are no easy games. It's going to be a very difficult group."

Chile's preparations were blighted by a foot injury suffered by Alexis Sanchez, with the Inter forward not now expected to be fit until the knockout phase.

They have only won three matches since the previous tournament and have only played three games this year under coach Martin Lasarte, who took charge in February.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

Still the go-to star for Argentina 16 years after his debut, this year's Copa America and the 2022 World Cup look like being Messi's final chances for international glory.

He might be turning 34 this month, but his powers remain imperious: he was directly involved in 50 goals (38 scored, 12 assisted) in 47 games for Barcelona in 2020-21. Only three players in Europe's top-five leagues managed more.

Chile – Carlos Palacios

An unknown at senior tournament level, Carlos Palacios will be familiar to some crowds in Brazil, having joined Internacional on loan from Union Espanola this year.

Still awaiting a first start for his country, the 20-year-old could well be called upon in the absence of Sanchez as Chile bid to come through Group B games with Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Argentina are unbeaten in their 28 Copa America clashes with Chile. Their 28 games are the most against a single opponent without defeat in their Copa America history.
- Chile's two Copa America titles came in consecutive editions – claiming glory in both the 2015 and 2016 tournaments.
- Argentina have beaten every single opponent in this year's Copa America more times than they have lost to them in tournament history.
- Chile made it at least to the quarter-finals in seven of the past eight editions.

It has been a long time since Paraguay last conquered South American football, and they start their 2021 Copa America campaign looking to arrest a slump against Bolivia.

Paraguay are two-time winners of the Copa America, though not since 1979 have La Albirroja hoisted the trophy aloft.

Since then, their best performance has been reaching the 2011 final, which they lost against Uruguay. Paraguay did make it to the 2019 quarter-final, where they were eliminated by eventual champions Brazil on penalties.

There are familiar faces in the squad – captain Gustavo Gomez, Newcastle United's Miguel Almiron and Angel Romero.

Juan Carlos Osorio oversaw Paraguay's run to the last eight two years ago, but former Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao boss Eduardo Berizzo is now at the helm as the country dreams big.

But Berizzo finds himself under pressure amid a four-game winless streak following their 2-0 defeat to Brazil in World Cup qualifying prior to the Copa America – the nation's first loss at home to the Selecao since 1985.

"The Copa America will serve to consolidate the concept and the idea," Paraguayan Football Association (APF) vice-president Javier Diaz de Vivar told Radio Monumental 1080 AM following the Brazil loss. "We see a growing Paraguay, we need to be more forceful and perhaps be a little more vertical, but we are doing well, working, we chat every day with Eduardo Berizzo."

Bolivia will be hoping the delayed Copa will help the team – the 1963 champions have not progressed from the group stage since 2015.

An additional advantage could be that most of Bolivia's squad play in the domestic league, which has been suspended due to the COVID-19 situation.

With more time to prepare together, Marcelo Martins and Bolivia – who took part in the 2015 quarter-finals, their first knockout-round appearance since finishing runners-up in 1997 – are looking beyond the group phase.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Paraguay – Julio Enciso

The youngest player at the Copa America, Enciso has already played 24 top-flight matches 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.

Bolivia – Marcelo Martins

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. 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. Martins scored in the previous meeting between Paraguay and Bolivia – a 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw in November.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Paraguay are winless in their last 11 games in Copa America (D6 L5), their longest winless run in the competition.

- Bolivia scored in each of their last two games in Copa America: Marcelo Martins and Leonel Justiniano found the net in their defeats against Peru and Venezuela respectively in 2019.

- This is the sixth consecutive Copa America with Paraguay managed by a Argentinian boss, with Gerardo Martino (2007 and 2011), Ramon Díaz (2015 and 2016) and Eduardo Berizzo (2019 and 2021) each taking charge for multiple tournaments.

- Bolivia boss Cesar Farías will manage his second Copa America. In his previous edition, he oversaw an historic fourth-place finish for Venezuela in 2011.

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."

Ecuador will be keen for a repeat of their sensational World Cup qualifying win over Colombia as they look to finally beat a South American rival at the Copa America.

La Tri remarkably won 6-1 in Quito in November, the last of three consecutive victories in an encouraging start to Qatar 2022 qualifying following an opening defeat to Argentina.

Led by Gustavo Alfaro, appointed three months prior to that match, Ecuador have waited a long time for a comparable result at the Copa America.

They have not beaten a CONMEBOL opponent at the tournament since 2001, their 4-0 defeat of Venezuela followed by a 13-game winless run in such matches.

Ecuador's only wins in the intervening period were against CONCACAF pair Mexico and Haiti.

The qualifying setback was particularly shocking for Colombia given their strong record against Ecuador, who they have beaten nine times at the Copa America – including the past seven meetings in a row.

La Tri's most recent Copa victory over Colombia was a 4-3 triumph in 1964.

Alfaro said: "We know the team that we are going to face – a team that have recovered their self esteem, their form, their intensity and have become one of the best.

"As they have been in the last two World Cups, they are one of the best in South America. We are in a process of wanting to occupy that place."
 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Colombia – Luis Muriel

Atalanta forward Muriel scored a club goal every 80 minutes this season, the fifth-best rate of any player in Europe's top five leagues with five or more. He finished with 26 goals and 10 assists in all competitions. Muriel will now be determined to make his mark at the Copa America, too, having appeared in only 19 minutes across two previous editions. He was injured 14 minutes into the 2019 opener.

Ecuador – Angel Mena

Colombia will be well aware of the threat of Mena, who scored one and created two more as he was involved in half of Ecuador's six goals in Quito. With a knack for taking up dangerous attacking positions, Mena scored 17 goals for Leon in Liga MX in 2020-21 but could have boosted that tally further still with his chances worth 19.2 expected goals.
 

KEY OPTA FACTS

– Colombia have beaten Ecuador in their past seven meetings at the Copa America, keeping clean sheets in five of them. Ecuador scored only two goals across these matches.
– Colombia are unbeaten in normal time in their past five games at the Copa America, keeping clean sheets in each of them (W4 D1). In the previous tournament, they were eliminated without losing a game. Chile beat Colombia in a penalty shoot-out following a goalless draw.
– Colombia have made it through the group stage in 11 of the past 12 editions, although their sole title came at home in 2001.
– This is the second time Reinaldo Rueda has coached Colombia at the tournament. Previously, they finished fourth in Peru in 2004 (W3 D1 L2). Alfaro is coaching a side at the Copa America for the first time.
– The 2016 tournament was the only one of the past eight editions in which Ecuador advanced beyond the group stage.

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