Only Copa America joy can cure Argentina's Plate pain

Messi & Co must beat Brazil and end 18 trophyless years to make a country smile again

The Copa America starts tonight as the hosts Argentina face Bolivia here, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from the local media, which remains obsessed – perhaps understandably so – with the relegation last weekend of River Plate.

It's pointless to try to come up with an English equivalent; there simply isn't one. River are supported by approximately 40 per cent of the population. They've won the title a record 33 times. They'd never been relegated before. For them not to be in the Primera Division next season is unimaginable and, in fact, it may turn out to be more than a year's absence, with River reportedly facing an 18-point penalty and being shut out of the Monumental Stadium for 20 games as punishment for the rioting that broke out after their defeat to Belgrano de Cordoba in the relegation play-off.

Amid all the controversy, Argentina are about to kick off a tournament in which they are expected, at least by home fans, to end an 18-year trophy drought. Great attacking players have come, and great attacking players have gone, and Argentina remain stuck on 14 Copas – the same total Uruguay reached in 1995. Just as bad, since the 1990 World Cup, Argentina have beaten only one side in the knockout stages of the World Cup without recourse to penalties: Mexico.

Diego Maradona notwithstanding, the players don't seem any worse than in the previous 12 years, in which Argentina reached three World Cup finals, but the trophies have stayed away. Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Martin Palermo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Saviola and Pablo Aimar have all failed to bring success; surely Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero can't similarly fail? A month ago, the mood was positive; there was a feeling that this was Argentina's time at last, but what has happened to River has shaken the sense of certainty. If River can be relegated, who knows what else may go wrong?

Starting against Bolivia, though, is a reminder of just how badly even groups of players as talented as this Argentina side can perform. Last time Argentina played them – admittedly at altitude in La Paz – they lost 6-1, the lowest of the many low points of Maradona's reign. He has gone, replaced by Sergio Batista, a team-mate from the 1986 World Cup-winning squad, who has restored Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and a sense of sanity to the side, talking endlessly about "patience" and about how the real aim is less winning this tournament than preparing for the World Cup in 2014.

Cambiasso's return means Javier Mascherano has support at the back of midfield, with the Internazionale midfielder operating to the left and Ever Banega of Valencia to the right, the sort of balance Maradona's sides never approached. That has meant, though, some difficult decisions as to who should flank Messi in Argentina's Barcelona-style 4-3-3. Ezequiel Lavezzi seems sure to start on the left, but on the right the situation is less clear. All the indications had been that Batista would opt for Angel di Maria of Real Madrid, but he has used Tevez in the role in training this week.

Lavezzi may be less vaunted than certain other squad members, but Batista described him yesterday as a "co-pilot for Messi". "Starting the tournament with a win is very important," the Napoli forward, who has been linked with a move to Manchester City this week, said. "That would give us a fundamental confidence. We know we need to win something before long, but to do that we must start on the right foot. We're aware of the dangers of favouritism."

Batista himself is full of confidence about his star player. "Messi is going to have a great Copa America," he said. "Having the best player in the world means a lot, and we'll try to make him comfortable so he produces his best. This is an enormous advantage."

"It's been a while since Argentina has won an important title," Messi added. "We need some joy for ourselves and our fans."

Realistically, after the withdrawal of Japan following the earthquake, the only team who should challenge Argentina in Group A are Colombia, who start against Costa Rica tomorrow. The Porto centre-forward Falcao, supported by Wigan's Hugo Rodallega, gives them a potent goal threat, while Fredy Guarin, another of Andre Villas-Boas's Europa League winners, provides thrust from midfield.

Brazil, the main threat to Argentina according to the bookmakers, start on Sunday against Venezuela and many eyes will be on Neymar. They too are looking to put a disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit behind them. Mano Menezes has brought a new spirit of adventure, eschewing the pragmatism of his predecessor, Dunga. They too have a relatively straightforward group: Paraguay will be as doughty as ever, and the combination of Antonio Valencia and Felipe Caicedo suggests Ecuador will pose a threat on the break, but really the battle in Group B should be for second.

"These players need to be ready for the 2014 World Cup [in Brazil] and playing in the Copa America will be extremely important to give them some much-needed experience," Menezes said.

Uruguay are the seeds in group C, and with the front three of Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, backed up by the tactical nous of Oscar Washington Tabarez, proved their effectiveness in the World Cup. Chile, having replaced Marcelo Bielsa with Claudio Borghi, remain something of an unknown quantity as they get used to a new man but they do have Alexis Sanchez. Peru have been ravaged by injuries – with Claudio Pizarro out, Jefferson Farfan and Juan Manuel Vargas struggling – while Mexico, although they won the Gold Cup last week, have sent a second string that has been further weakened by the departure of eight players after allegations they had consorted with prostitutes in the team hotel.

Logic says it should be between Argentina and Brazil but, as Argentines are all too aware after the events of the past week, logic doesn't necessarily have much to do with it.

Copa America fixtures

Group A

Tomorrow

Argentina v Bolivia 1.45am BST

Colombia v Costa Rica 7.30pm

7 July:

Argentina v Colombia 1.45am

Bolivia v Costa Rica 11.15pm

10 July:

Colombia v Bolivia 8pm

12 July:

Argentina v Costa Rica 1.45am

Group B

Sunday

Brazil v Venezuela 8pm

Paraguay v Ecuador10.30pm

9 July:

Brazil v Paraguay 8pm

Venezuela v Ecuador 10.30pm

13 July:

Paraguay v Venezuela11.15pm

14 July:

Brazil v Ecuador 1.45amGroup C

Monday:

Uruguay v Peru 11.15pm

Tuesday

Chile v Mexico 1.45am

8 July:

Peru v Mexico 1.45am

9 July:

Uruguay v Chile 11.15pm

12 July:

Chile v Peru 11.15pm

13 July:

Uruguay v Mexico 1.45amQuarter-finals

16 July:

A1 v 1st Third Place 8pm

A2 v C2 11.15pm

17 July:

B1 v 2nd Third Place 8pm

C1 v B2 11.15pm

Semi-finals

20 July Q1 v Q2 1.45am

21 JulyQ3 v Q4 1.45am

Final

24 July S1 v S2 8pm

Copa America 2011 squad previews

For more on Copa America 2011, listen to The South American Football Show.



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