Copa America on horizon for South Americans
The countdown is on towards the Copa America, this year's top senior international competition. Over the next couple of months, though, the focus will be firmly on club football, with the closing stages of domestic championships, the Champions League and the Libertadores.
In the wake of the two recent Fifa dates, this would seem to be the appropriate moment to look back at the recent international friendlies and reflect on how South America's teams are preparing for the Copa.
Preparation is the key word, because the way the Copa now fits in the calendar turns it into a warm-up tournament. South America plays a three-year cycle of World Cup qualifiers and the Copa comes just before the wheel starts turning.
National teams all over the continent are stressing that their main priority in this year's Copa is to emerge from it with a team ready to fight for a place in the next World Cup.
As 2014 hosts, Brazil of course have automatically qualified, which gives this year's Copa an extra importance for them.
This July they will play their most serious competitive games in the run up to the World Cup, which helps explain why experienced campaigners such as Lucio and Elano were recalled for the recent game against Scotland.
Coach Mano Menezes appears to have settled for a 4-2-3-1 formation with a target-man centre forward, as this column noted last week.
The pressure will also be on Copa hosts Argentina, despite all the protestations of coach Sergio Batista that the World Cup is his priority. Without a senior title since 1993, they will be expected to bring that run to an end in front of their own fans.
Last week's column noted some of the question marks around the attacking personnel of Batista's 4-3-3 system and although he has learned a little bit more since then, most of it was negative.
Without Lionel Messi, Argentina played out a poor 0-0 draw away to Costa Rica last Tuesday, a game in which the tactic of playing Jose Sosa and Nicolas Gaitan in the wide positions was a clear failure. Both prefer the ball played to their feet, making it impossible to lengthen the game and rendering Argentina's midfield interpassing somewhat pointless. Then again, friendlies are when experiments should take place.
Argentina opted to rest Lionel Messi (left) for the friendly against Costa Rica - Photo: Reuters
Uruguay would love to have a promising new goalkeeper to experiment with after coach Oscar Washington Tabarez admitted his concern about the displays of his two current keepers, Muslera and Castillo, in their recent 2-0 loss to Estonia and 3-2 win over the Republic of Ireland.
In general though, Uruguay are making serene progress. Edinson Cavani has made great strides this season, and another striker, Abel Hernandez, leads the list of players from the youth ranks being funnelled in to the senior side. There are grounds for the hope that last year's World Cup semi-final appearance was not a flash in the pan, but a sign of a long term revival for the first kings of the global game.
With Paraguay, on the other hand, it is not clear whether making the quarter-finals in South Africa represents the end or the beginning. Will it mark the highpoint of four consecutive World Cup appearances, or the emergence of Paraguay as genuine contenders?
Friendlies are never the best place to judge the Paraguayans, who played a disastrous first half hour to lose 3-1 to Mexico and then produced a more typically resilient performance to beat the USA. There does seem to be a lack of genuine quality coming through, and coach Gerardo Martino could be a victim of his own success. Expectations are now higher.
Expectations plummeted in Chile, who played with such brio in the World Cup, when turbulent changes in the local FA forced the resignation of highly respected coach Marcelo Bielsa. But his replacement, fellow Argentine Claudio Borghi, made an impressive start, with a 1-1 draw with Portugal followed by a 2-0 win over Colombia.
Mati Fernandez has emerged as Chile's main creative force - photo: AP
Borghi favours a more traditional 3-5-2 over Bielsa's trademark 3-3-1-3 formation, and his side do not seek to press so obsessively in the opponent's half. Sitting deeper allows them to spring a rapid counter-attack, and gives playmaker Mati Fernandez more space to work in.
He was Chile's standout player, scoring two magnificent free-kicks and setting up the other goal with a shrewd pass. A shy figure, Fernandez may well be benefiting from teaming up once more with Borghi, who groomed him at club level.
Apart from Borghi, the newest coach in South America is Bolivia's Gustavo Quinteros, who endured rather than enjoyed his second and third matches in charge, a 2-0 defeat by Panama followed by a 1-1 draw with Guatemala. In the Copa America Bolivia are being handed what has become their customary role - they are Argentina's first opponents, in the expectation that the hosts get off to a winning start.
Quinteros, a naturalised Argentine who represented Bolivia in the 1994 World Cup, will hope that his side can hang on and spring the counter. His biggest hope, though, will be to get through the competition with prestige unscathed and then bet that the altitude of La Paz will help keep his team in contention for a World Cup place.
In the same group as Bolivia, Colombia will expect to seal their place in the quarter-finals with a win over Quinteros' team, but their coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, has yet to get his side to click - a long term injury to playmaker Giovanni Moreno has not helped - and a shortage of goals continues to be a problem.
Colombia did manage to put two goals past Ecuador, who are struggling to replace the generation who took them so far so fast. Coach Reinaldo Rueda will look to the likes of midfielder Cristian Noboa and support striker Jefferson Montero to pick up the torch. Last week they were disappointed to be held 0-0 by a Peru side down to 10 men half way through the first half.
Peru, meanwhile, were delighted to have shown the mental strength necessary to grind out a result. The likes of Claudio Pizarro and Paolo Guerrero give them firepower, and in the Uruguayan Sergio Markarian they have a top-class coach, capable of organising the defence and putting an end to the petty internal problems which have caused such harm to their cause. Peru promise to be an interesting team to follow.
Finally, there is Venezuela, the only team in the continent never to have been to a World Cup. Their results - a 2-0 win over Jamaica and a 1-1 draw with Mexico - underlined their recent progress.
Coach Cesar Farias has cleverly promoted players trough the Under-20s to the senior side - little support striker Yohandry Orozco looks especially exciting. Venezuela open their Copa America campaign against Brazil and hope to emerge from the tournament with a team capable of carrying them south to Brazil in 2014.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) With the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, the pressure to win the tournament will be almost unbearable, but how much pressure will there be to win in a "Brazilian style" ? What was the reaction in Brazil to the 1994 winning team, was it one of relief after 24 years of "failure" or was there any criticism that it wasn't technically as good as the 1970 or 1982 teams? Will winning in the "Brazilian style" create added pressure for 2014 or will winning be enough?
A) In the last three days I've had two separate conversations with senior Brazilian journalists who, word for word, have said the same thing - in their view, their countrymen are not interested in sport, they are interested in winning. There's a lot of truth in this. The oft repeated view that Brazilians would rather have fun than win is as wide of the mark as you could wish - the victory of the 1994 side was greeted with hysterical celebrations.
Having said that, there is also great and totally understandable pride in the style of the global success (and please let's not forget 1958, probably the best of the lot). Mano Menezes, intelligently, argues that to have the crowd fully onside in 2014, and derive full benefit from home advantage, Brazil will need to play in more traditional style.
His reign has marked the end of the Gilberto Silva era - both central midfielders are now popping up in the opponent's penalty box in open play.
"My idea is to take the team to victory," said Mano when he was first appointed. "If we can do that playing beautiful football, great." I think that comment shows where the priorities lie.