After 13 days of somewhat 'tired-looking' football in Brazil, the latest edition of the Copa America is all set for the quarter-final stages of the competition. The pre-tournament predictions of there being no favourites to win the Copa have been largely true " home team Brazil have taken their time to get the engine running while Lionel Messi's Argentina have looked toothless for most parts " but the knockout stage is when the battle truly begins.
The group stages exposed the vulnerabilities of all the sides competing in the South American tournament which should lead to an exciting tactical battle in the upcoming stages.
Here are four talking points from the league stages of the 46th edition of the Copa America.
Fatigue was the main theme leading up to the tournament and it continued to be so in the group stages as players struggled to find their groove after a strenuous season with their respective clubs. At times the matches looked like a pre-season friendly with teams, and particularly star players, looking lethargic on the pitch. In fact, it has been players who have had less-strenuous seasons with their clubs, who have looked lethal in the tournament. Much maligned Alexis Sanchez has arguably been Chile's best player while 36-year-old Dani Alves, who has had to share his right-back duties with Thomas Meunier at Paris Saint-Germain, has also shown why he is still regarded amongst the world's best at his job.
The fatigue and the exhaustion have been major factors in teams' overall performances too. Argentina have looked the most jaded side and their quarter-final date against Venezuela, whose players haven't had long seasons like Argentine stars, will not be an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. The Vinotinto won't be scared to play Lionel Messi's boys having beaten them in March in a friendly. Similarly, a Neymar-less Brazil struggled to kick-start their Copa campaign in full throttle even though they ended the stage with a 5-0 mauling of Peru.
A messy state of affairs
It is a pain to watch Argentina these days. The general lack of direction that has swarmed The Albiceleste since their run of final defeats is, for the lack of a better word, agonising. A lot of the team has changed " from coach to players " but the team finds themselves in the same old predicament of struggling in an international tournament which should leave fans wondering what has really changed since the Russia World Cup.
Messi criticised the quality of the pitches, and rightly so " the quality of the grounds in Salvador and Belo Horizonte where Argentina played their matches have been awful " but the problems in the Argentina team go beyond the playing surface. An overhaul, and a restructuring of the team without Messi, will be in pipeline for Argentina post this Copa America. Paulo Dybala has only played 15 minutes in Copa this year, and in those minutes he helped set up Sergio Aguero's goal against Qatar. But the larger question is " how do you fit Dybala and Messi in the same team?
Venezuela will pose a major threat to Messi's ambition to quit Argentina with a major silverware though, with Rafael Dudamel's men impressing in their outings so far. The team is disciplined " playing a 4-5-1 formation"and Argentina will have a hard time stopping striker Salomon Rondon, and a resilient midfield in their quarter-final outing.
Where are the youngsters?
Traditionally, Copa was always the tournament national teams used to field a younger, inexperienced side to find the right balance heading into the next world cup. Unfortunately, there have been very few displays in the competition that have caught everyone's eyes. Gremio's Everton Soares has been the star for Brazil in the tournament with is pace, athleticism, and desire, shadowing the bigger names in his team.
Japan were perhaps the only team that arrived for the tournament with the future in their mind. The Asian team played the group stages with the Under-23 team that is being groomed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While Chile thrashed them 4-0. The young side, spearheaded by boy wonder and new Real Madrid recruit Takefusa Kubo, earned a 2-2 draw against favorites Uruguay. A 1-1 draw against Ecuador in the last group stage match ended Japan's hope of progressing though.
Japan did come under some criticism with many complaining that the Asian guests were undermining the tournament by playing a young side.
"I do not agree that a guest like Japan gives due importance to its participation by coming with players that are mostly under 23. I raise my voice and say Copa America needs to be only for South American teams," said Venezuela coach Dudamel after his team qualified for the quarterfinals.
Competition wide open
The mixed nature of results from the group stages means we go into the knockout stages not knowing what to expect. Look at Chile for example. Reinaldo Rueda's side was expected to use the tournament to reset the team and launch fresh new faces. Instead, the La Roja, winners of the last two Copa America tournaments, have relied on familiar faces of Arturo Vidal, Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas to dominate the competition. And in the quarter-finals, they will face a Colombia side in a good path of form themselves, with James Rodriguez rediscovering his magic touch to carry the side forward.
Uruguay's experienced defence comprising of Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez, Diego Laxalt along with the attacking duo of Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez should put them in the list of top contenders to win the tournament as well, along with hosts Brazil and Messi's Argentina. The unpredictability of the tournament means we are in for a rollercoaster ride for the second half of the tournament " a certain upgrade from the dull group stages.