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Copa America 2011 : Uruguay vs Paraguay. Surprise Final?

If you had asked soccer fans which teams they thought would contest this year’s Copa America final, before the tournament began, most would have said Brazil and Argentina. After all, the last two finals of the tournament, in 2004 and 2007 were played between these great rivals. Argentina had home field advantage and can boast a team featuring Messi, Higuian, Aguero, Tevez and Di Maria. Brazil had won four of the last five tournaments and had Pato, Robinho, Ganso and Neymar in their lineup.

Turns out most soccer fans would be wrong. You would have got very long odds on a Paraguay vs Uruguay final, but should we be so surprised? Not if you consider the evidence from last year’s World Cup. Argentina had much the same squad in South Africa, a tournament for which they struggled to qualify. While they looked good against lesser teams like Greece, Nigeria, South Korea and Mexico when they faced their first true test they were ruthlessly dismantled by Germany. Brazil too despite easing through the gruelling South American qualifying schedule never convinced and the Netherlands sent them home.

Meanwhile, Uruguay, lead by Diego Forlan, were South America’s best performing team, finishing fourth. Paraguay arguably came closest to knocking out eventual winners Spain in the quarterfinals, having an early goal wrongly disallowed for offside in the first half before missing a penalty in the second and eventually succumbing 1-0 to David Villa’s 83rd minute strike.

Both Brazil and Argentina have made managerial changes since South Africa, with Sergio Batista replacing Diego Maradona and Mano Menezes replacing Dunga, but results have not yet improved. Batista tried to adopt the style of play and formation of Barcelona, in an attempt to coax the best out of Messi, who is a notorious underperformer when wearing the albiceleste. However his experiment failed, mainly due to the absence of midfielders in the same class as Xavi and Iniesta.

Menezes meanwhile brought a squad short of big tournament experience, and while they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in most of their games they generally defended poorly and lacked a cutting edge in front of goal.

Part of the problem lies in that fans demand that Argentina and Brazil play the “right” way. It’s not enough to win. There is an expectation that these teams should win with style by dominating possession and scoring beautiful goals, which places a huge amount of pressure on players and managers alike. Improvements in tactics and fitness mean it’s a lot harder to do this nowadays, even against the weaker teams.

For teams like Uruguay and Paraguay there are no such expectations and therefore less pressure. Victory, no matter how it is achieved, is enough. Paraguay, have not “won” a single match in the tournament, drawing their 3 group ties and progressing on penalties against both Brazil and Venezuela. Uruguay have defended heroically and relied on set pieces and the guile and invention of Forlan and Suarez on the break for their goals.

So should Brazil and Argentina also adopt a more pragmatic approach? Given the talent available to both Brazil and Argentina it would be a travesty if they did. Besides it would not guarantee success:  How many tournaments have Paraguay won? More likely this Copa America is an exception rather than the rule, rather like Euro 2004

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