The two biggest teams in South America have enjoyed contrasting fortunes recently and will arrive at the Copa America Centenario in hope and expectation, Brazil in hope and Argentina in expectation.
Argentina believe this could be their first major title since lifting the Copa America in 1993 and they want to put final defeats in last year’s tournament and the 2014 World Cup behind them.
They go into the Centenary Copa as the No.1 team in the FIFA rankings and with the most star-studded of the 16 squads on show. They will have Lionel Messi available, along with a host of other big names that include Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria.
Their trump card could be Gonzalo Higuain, the oft-maligned striker who has failed to take his club form to international level.
Higuain grabbed 36 goals in 35 Serie A league games for Napoli this year and is optimistic his stellar form will continue in the U.S.
“I have a confidence I have never had before,” the 28-year old French-born striker told reporters on the eve of the tournament. “I am trying to play for the national team like I play for Napoli.”
GOALS AND EXPERIENCE
Their South American rivals have more than just goals to worry about.
Brazil have never fully recovered from their 7-1 home hammering by Germany in the 2014 World Cup and they will be without their talismanic striker Neymar, who will instead take part in the Olympic Games.
The problem for Brazil is they lack a replacement, both as a leader and goalscorer, two roles that Neymar has filled with ease.
The 24-year old striker has scored 46 times in 70 internationals, just two behind Zico and fifth on Brazil’s all-time list.
Coach Dunga is betting on two strikers with contrasting experience, the 32-year old Benfica striker Jonas and the teenage Santos prospect Gabriel.
Jonas is coming off a season in which he scored 37 goals in 48 games but he has only nine full caps. Gabriel, who goes by the nickname ‘Gabigol’, made his debut in Sunday’s 2-0 friendly win over Panama. Both players scored to ease Dunga’s concern about their firepower.
Miranda looks set to captain the side in Neymar’s absence but the team lacks experience. Dunga has left out Thiago Silva, who he doesn’t rate, and dropped his Paris Saint-Germain team mate David Luiz.
Real Madrid’s Marcelo was also sidelined, as was midfielder Fernandinho. Douglas Costa, a possible substitute for Neymar, withdrew last week and was replaced by Orlando City’s Kaka.
The big question for Brazil is whether any of those players can fill Neymar’s boots.
Dunga will hope the tournament is reminiscent of the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela, when he led a side lacking its biggest names to a 3-0 massacre of Argentina in the final.
Headliners Kaka and Ronaldinho both missed that tournament but Dunga’s makeshift squad were worthy winners and he has told his players they should see this year as a chance to make themselves irreplaceable.
“All the players that are here can be protagonists,” he told reporters. “It is up to them. In football we always think protagonists are the players who play up front and score goals but lots of them have the chance to carve out their space.”