Copa America 2024: Can Messi and Argentina continue their era of dominance?

By Sports Desk June 18, 2024

It took 28 years, but Argentina finally ended a long wait for a major international trophy when they triumphed at the 2021 Copa America.

Lionel Messi starred throughout that tournament in Brazil, which was played partly behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, scoring four goals and laying on five more, though it was Angel Di Maria who proved Argentina's hero in the final, scoring the winner against the Selecao.

That triumph marked Messi's first piece of silverware on the international stage, while Argentina won a trophy for the first time since 1993.

It paved the way for Argentina to go from continental champions to world champions less than 18 months later, as Messi inspired them to glory in Qatar.

And now the world champions will look to cement this era of dominance by retaining the Copa America crown.

With the help of Opta data, we preview the key storylines ahead of the Copa America.

THE HOSTS

USA

This year's Copa will be held in the United States, which was also the host nation for the 2016 edition, which was won by Chile.

Like in 2016, 16 teams will feature at the tournament this year, with the USA one of six CONCACAF nations involved.

Gregg Berhalter left his role after the 2022 World Cup, but was then reappointed. While he has a talented group at his disposal, it does feel as though he cannot quite get the required level of consistency out of them.

The two sides of the USA were on show in their warm-up matches: A 5-1 hammering at the hands of Colombia was followed by a 1-1 draw with heavyweights Brazil.

In Christian Pulisic, the USA have an influential playmaker who comes into the tournament on the back of his best goalscoring season, having netted 15 times in all competitions for Milan.

Folarin Balogun has netted three times for the Stars and Stripes since switching allegiance from England, while Antonee Robinson, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have plenty of top-level experience. But Berhalter has to find a way to put it all together.

THE FAVOURITES

Argentina

It is easy to see why La Albiceleste are the big favourites. They are the best team in the world, according to the FIFA rankings, and in Messi, they still have a player who is arguably the best in the world, even heading into his late thirties.

Messi has already been involved in 21 MLS goals for Inter Miami this season, and everything is set to revolve around him once again for Argentina.

 

As soon as he features for Argentina at this tournament, Messi will become the Copa America’s all-time record holder for appearances – he is tied with Chile great Sergio Livingstone on 34, as it stands.

Messi has scored 13 Copa America goals, which puts him joint-seventh on the all-time list, alongside fellow Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta. If he is able to replicate his four goals from the 2021 edition, then Messi could join Norberto Mendez and Zizinho at the top of the all-time charts – that is unless Peru's Paolo Guerrero and/or Chile's Eduardo Vargas were to net at least four times each to set a new record.

Since the start of the 2011 Copa, Messi has had 102 shots – more than any other player. Surprisingly, his conversion rate stands at just 10.78 per cent, which is the second-lowest out of any player to have netted at least five goals in the competition in that time.

With 15 titles to their name, Argentina are the joint-record winners of the Copa America, alongside Uruguay. They have played more Copa matches (201) and scored more goals in the tournament (474) than any other team, too.

They are clearly the team to beat.

Brazil

This Brazil is not exactly the vintage of the 1990s or 2000s. With no Neymar, there's less flair, and more streetfighter grit, in Dorival Junior's squad.

Vinicius Junior does provide a flavour of the archetypal Brazilian international, though, and he is set to be the Selecao's talisman at this Copa.

He comes into the tournament on the back of an exceptional season with Real Madrid, having scored 24 goals across all competitions.

Vinicius outperformed his 20.96 xG, while also providing nine assists and creating 56 chances for his team-mates.

The forward spent much of the domestic campaign playing down the middle for Carlo Ancelotti's team, whereas for his country, he is likely to play wide left.

Who occupies that centre-forward spot is perhaps up for debate. Endrick is a superstar in the making, though will Brazil's coach trust the youngster to lead the line from the off?

Gabriel Martinelli is better on the flanks, though could do a job if required. However, with no Richarlison or Gabriel Jesus, that striker position does seem a possible weakness.

There's no Casemiro, following his poor performances for Manchester United, but Douglas Luiz, Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta form a steely midfield trio with genuine quality.

With Ederson injured, Alisson is the clear number one, with Eder Militao and Marquinhos seemingly set to pair up at the back, with Gabriel Magalhaes and Bremer quality options in reserve, too.

They face Colombia, Paraguay and Costa Rica in their group, and despite their struggles in World Cup qualifying, they are still the favourites to top that pool.

Uruguay

Now under the guidance of the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa, Uruguay are being tipped by many to emerge as serious challengers in the United States. 

A hat-trick from Liverpool's Darwin Nunez helped them thrash Mexico 4-0 in a pre-tournament friendly last week, while they also sit second in the CONMEBOL 2026 World Cup qualification standings, having beaten Brazil and Argentina last year.

That latter victory makes them the only team to defeat La Albiceleste since they won the World Cup in Qatar. Messi and company have won the other 13 of their 14 matches as world champions.

Nunez, who ranked joint-fifth in the Premier League for total shots (108) and eighth for xG (16.39) in 2023-24, is an ideal fit for the all-action attacking approach favoured by Bielsa, while tireless midfielder Federico Valverde brings balance alongside enforcer Manuel Ugarte and the cultured Rodrigo Bentancur.

Luis Suarez, meanwhile, has received a surprise call-up despite not featuring in Uruguay's pre-tournament friendlies, having scored 12 goals and assisted five in 16 MLS appearances for Inter Miami this term.

Neutrals should expect entertainment from a side that leads all teams in South American World Cup qualifying for xG (9.05), but as is so often the case with Bielsa's teams, there are questions at the other end. 

Ecuador (4.52) and Venezuela (4.78) are among those to have allowed opponents a lower xG total in the CONMEBOL qualifiers than Uruguay (4.97 xGA), and goalkeeper Sergio Rochet can expect to be worked after usurping Fernando Muslera, who helped La Celeste finish fourth at the 2010 World Cup and win the Copa America one year later.

Panama and Bolivia look unlikely to offer much of a challenge in Group C, making Uruguay's final match against the United States vital. Should they top their pool, they will land on the opposite side of the bracket to the Group A victors, widely expected to be Argentina. 

Uruguay held the record for most Copa America victories outright between 2011 (their 15th title) and 2021 (Argentina's 15th). If we see Bielsa-ball in full flow, they could be contenders to reclaim their status as South America's top dogs.

Colombia

Colombia are the form team heading into the Copa America.

They are unbeaten in 23 games, winning the last eight of those, including hammerings of the USA and Bolivia in pre-tournament friendlies.

Luis Diaz scored one and set up another in that latter match - a 3-0 win - and he was the breakout star of the 2021 Copa America, scoring four goals to finish level with Messi at the top of the charts.

Those four goals came from a combined xG of just 1.0, with Diaz netting an overhead kick against Brazil in the group stage, and lashing in a supreme strike from outside the area as Colombia beat Peru in the third-placed play-off.

Diaz is Colombia's most potent goalscoring threat, but they also have James Rodriguez to rely on further back.

James' club career has become a nomadic one, but for his country, the former Madrid playmaker is a superstar once again under coach Nestor Lorenzo, who has made the 32-year-old the main man.

Having been left out of Colombia's squad for the 2021 edition, James will be eager to make up for lost time.

Colombia are more than just dark horses. They should be considered among the very best teams at this tournament.

THE BREAKOUT STARS

Endrick is the obvious pick here. The teenager looks set for stardom, and he'll be linking up with Vinicius, Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season. He has scored three goals in his last four outings for Brazil, including a late winner against Mexico earlier in June.

Alejandro Garnacho is now an established Premier League player, but he is only just finding his way for Argentina. He is yet to score for his country, but has stepped up in big moments for Manchester United this season, none more so than in the FA Cup final, in which he scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win over Manchester City.

Colombia forward Jhon Duran  is reportedly of interest to Chelsea, and the Aston Villa attacker could be something of a wildcard for Lorenzo off the bench. His five Premier League goals in 2023-24 came from just 2.0 xG.

THE OPTA SUPERCOMPUTER SAYS...

As mentioned, Argentina are the clear favourites, with Opta's model handing them a 31 per cent chance of winning their 16th Copa crown.

Brazil, as would be expected, rank second - their win likelihood is 23 per cent .

Uruguay come in with a 13 per cent chance, ahead of the USA ( seven per cent ), Colombia ( six per cent ) and Mexico ( six per cent ).

Two teams - Jamaica and Bolivia, who are the worst-ranked side in this year's edition of the tournament - are given a zero per cent chance of winning the trophy.

Panama, who reached the CONCACAF Gold Cup final last year, can perhaps consider themselves hard done by to be given just a one per cent chance, however.

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