Lionel Messi continues to amaze Canada head coach Jesse Marsch after inspiring Argentina to victory in the opening game of the Copa America.

World champions Argentina triumphed 2-0 over Canada in Atlanta, making an impressive start to their title defence in the tournament.

Messi had a hand in both goals as Julian Alvarez and Lautaro Martinez struck in the second half on Thursday.

The Martinez goal saw Messi rack up his 17th Copa America assist. Since 2011, he has registered over three times as many goals created as any other player in the competition, with Angel Di Maria and Alexis Sanchez ranking second on five each.

Messi turns 37 on Monday, and has a stunning 20-year professional career under his belt, but that does not mean he does not continue to stun and surprise his opponents, including Marsch.

Marsch felt his team did what they could to remain compact, but Messi, who created a game-leading five chances, proved the difference on his record-breaking 35th Copa appearance.

 

The Canada boss explained the task of having to face Messi was amazing and awful in equal measure, with the forward having a massive impact even though the coach felt his gameplan to try and limit the Argentina star had been implemented reasonably well.

"Yeah, with Messi we talked a lot about our compactness and then identifying the spaces that he likes to show up in," Marsch said after the game.

"We talked about not diving in because it's hard to win tackles from him.

"What happens is if you eliminate yourself or if you start diving in for tackles, he's really good slipping and moving and getting back again and making little final plays.

"This is what I say about Messi: I have coached against him several times and I feel like we have had a good match plan and we have executed a lot of good things.

"But he is so good, he is that good that he still makes plays. The two balls he makes on the two goals I think are world class. 

"Amazing, it's awful. It's amazing."

Inter Miami star Messi had a game-leading six shots, getting three of them on target, and also led the match for touches in the opponent's box (nine) in an all-action display.

Despite the challenge of facing Messi, Canada captain Alphonso Davies felt his side should have done more to follow up on a battling first-half performance that meant the game goalless at half-time.

"We have to change our attitude towards the game," Davies said to TSN.

"The first half we played well, but in the second half we let every long ball bounce. 

"It was a disappointing result, we need to look at everything we did wrong in the game and fix it as soon as possible."

Argentina return to action against Chile on Tuesday, which is also when Canada will hope to pick up their first points of the campaign against Peru.

Argentina picked up where they left off in the Copa America, with the holders kick-starting their title defence with a strong 2-0 victory over Canada.

The world champions are expected to progress with ease from Group A, and they made an ideal start in Atlanta on Thursday.

Julian Alvarez and Lautaro Martinez got the goals, but it was of course Lionel Messi who was the main focus.

Messi became the record appearance maker in the 108-year history of the Copa America, overtaking Chile great Sergio Livingstone by featuring in his 35th match at the tournament.

The 36-year-old's superb tournament record stands at 22 wins, 10 draws and three losses. And he has one Copa title – a total he hopes will increase with another trophy on July 14.

And while he could not get on the scoresheet, Messi, despite playing on a choppy pitch that has drawn the ire of Argentina, was as influential as ever for La Albiceleste.

He will probably lament some unusually profligate finishing - at least by his high standards - as the reason why he didn't mark his record-setting appearance with a 14th Copa America goal (he is, as it stands, four off the all-time leading goalscorers in the competition, Norberto Mendez and Zizinho).

Messi had a game-leading six shots, getting three of them on target, with those attempts accumulating an expected goals (xG) value of 0.79 - a total bettered by only his team-mate Martinez (0.8).

The Inter Miami star led the match for touches in the opponent's box (nine), and big chances (two) in an all-action display.

 

Canada's goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who like Messi plays in MLS, was also on form, making six saves.

But what Messi lacked in his finishing, he made up for in creativity.

His total of five chances created led the match, and was at least two clear of any other player on the pitch. He was nine ahead of next-best Rodrigo de Paul for passes in the final third, with 27, and attempted six dribbles, albeit only completing one of them.

It was Messi's pass that released Alexis Mac Allister, who was then wiped out by Crepeau only for Alvarez to tuck home Argentina's 49th-minute opener.

And it was Messi who put through substitute Martinez to round off the victory late on.

That was Messi's 17th assist at the Copa America, with his first assist in the competition coming in 2011.

Since then, he has registered over three times as many assists as any other player in the competition, with Angel Di Maria and Alexis Sanchez ranking second on five each.

It also saw Messi reach 50 direct goal involvements in official competitions for club and country on U.S. soil (30 goals + 20 assists).

His figure of seven line-breaking passes, meanwhile, was more than double that of any other player in Thursday's match.

Argentina can reasonably reflect that they should have scored more, an ominous sign for their upcoming opponents. They had nine big scoring chances (according to Opta's definition) against Canada, the most for La Albiceleste in a single game since 2013, and accumulated 2.98 xG. 

Messi was at the heart of it all, but it was not a case of him having to do it all on his own.

De Paul was impressive in midfield, while in Alvarez and Martinez, Messi has an excellent supporting cast for this year's competition.

At 24 years and 142 days, Alvarez is the youngest player to score in both the World Cup and the Copa America since Jose Maria Gimenez did so for Uruguay in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Martinez, meanwhile, has scored in four of the last five matches he has played in the Copa America, striking in this match against Canada to follow up goals against Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia in 2021. The only exception in that run was the final in 2021 against Brazil.

The Inter striker might have to settle for a back-up role at this tournament, but it's now three goals in his last two matches for his country, and he could be a contender for the Golden Boot.

Argentina should be confident of a deep run. They should really go all the way.

They are the best team in the world, after all, and Lionel Scaloni has, by some distance, the best squad in the competition at his disposal, what with Brazil missing stalwarts Casemiro, Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison, as well as their talisman Neymar, even if Vinicius Junior is an excellent alternative.

That being said, this is the first time under their coach that Argentina have won their opening match of a major tournament, having slipped to a 2-0 defeat to Colombia in the 2019 Copa America, drawing 1-1 with Chile in the same competition two years later, and then losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia at the 2022 World Cup.

This time, they have got off on the right foot. Upcoming matches against Chile and Peru should not prove tough hurdles to navigate, especially not with Messi already clicking through the gears.

Lionel Scaloni and Emiliano Martinez criticised the state of the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after Argentina's 2-0 Copa America win over Canada.

Goals from Julian Alvarez and Lautaro Martinez got the job done for the reigning continental and world champions in Atlanta on Thursday, in the tournament's opener.

However, the state of the playing surface was a big issue, with the turf notably chopping up.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is used for both NFL games - it is the home of the Atlanta Falcons - and MLS, with Atlanta United playing their home matches there, but Scaloni was deeply unhappy with the preparation of the pitch, with an artificial surface having been replaced by grass on the eve of the Copa America.

"The start looked like the match with Saudi Arabia [at the 2022 World Cup], with the difference that we played on a more decent pitch that time," Scaloni told reporters.

"With all due respect, thank goodness we won. Otherwise, it would have been a cheap excuse.

"We have known for seven months that we are going to play here and they changed the turf two days ago.

"It is not good for the show. It is not an excuse, the stadium is beautiful and with synthetic turf it must be spectacular, but with today's turf it is not suitable for this kind of players."

Scaloni's sentiment was echoed by goalkeeper Martinez, who told TyC Sports: "Coming here against a strong Canada, with good forwards and on a field that is a disaster made it a little difficult for us.

"We have to improve in that aspect. Otherwise, the Copa America will always be at a lower level than the European Championship."

 

Argentina captain and talisman Lionel Messi became the record appearance maker in Copa America history, overtaking Sergio Livingstone by playing in his 35th game at the tournament.

While he could not mark the milestone appearance with a goal, Messi did tee up Martinez's effort late on, with that assist his 17th in the Copa America.

"We knew it was going to be a tough game. We knew that Canada was going to be a hard team to go against," Messi told FOX.

"They were physical, very physical. In the first half, there was little space. It was intense, physically intense and strong and then in the second half we were able to progress and get better."

Copa America holders Argentina made a winning start at the 2024 tournament as Julian Alvarez and Lautaro Martinez scored in a 2-0 win over Canada.

The 2022 World Cup winners did not have things all their own way against Jesse Marsch's competition debutants, who missed a couple of glaring chances through Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David.

But on the day he became the Copa's outright leading appearance-maker, Lionel Messi was the catalyst for both goals, splitting the Canada defence in the build-up to Alvarez's opener then assisting Martinez's late clincher.

The Inter Miami star missed two great chances to get on the scoresheet himself, but it was of no consequence as Lionel Scaloni's men started with three points.

They take on Chile, who beat them in the 2015 and 2016 finals, in their second match on Tuesday, while Canada will look to bounce back versus Peru.

Canada refused to sit in and their approach left them open at the back early on. Leandro Paredes curled a 25-yard effort narrowly over the top, then Alvarez saw his shot smothered by Maxime Crepeau after a lightning break took him clean through on goal.

Despite Argentina dominating possession, Canada should have gone ahead on the stroke of half-time, Emiliano Martinez making a reflex save to deny Stephen Eustaquio before Davies miscued on the follow-up. 

They were made to regret that miss four minutes into the second half. Messi's pinpoint throughball found Alexis Mac Allister, and though the midfielder was wiped out by Crepeau, Alvarez was on hand to convert into an empty net.

Messi should have made it 2-0 after 65 minutes, but he saw an angled drive parried by Crepeau before Derek Cornelius made a fine block to deny him on the rebound. 

Canada continued to offer a threat at the other end, though, with David heading over after being found totally unmarked by Jacob Shaffelburg's cross.

Messi missed another chance when his dinked attempt rolled agonisingly wide, but he did manage an assist as Argentina made the result safe two minutes from time.

His delicate pass sent Martinez clear, and the substitute slotted a composed finish between the legs of Crepeau.

Assist for Messi on landmark appearance

Messi made a piece of Copa America history on Thursday, his 35th appearance in CONMEBOL's flagship tournament pulling him clear of Chile great Sergio Livingstone for the most games played at the competition outright.

The eight-time Ballon d'Or winner failed to mark the occasion with a goal, misfiring from a game-high six shots worth 0.69 expected goals (xG).

However, he did cap his outing with an assist for Martinez's late second, taking him to 30 goal involvements at the tournament overall (13 goals, 17 assists).

Messi still has plenty of gears to go through, and that should strike fear into Argentina's upcoming opponents. 

Encouragement for Canada, but no points

Canada became the 20th different nation to participate in the Copa America, and the eighth different CONCACAF team after Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama and the United States.

As was the case at the 2022 World Cup, they played some high-octane football but were not rewarded with a positive result.

At half-time, Marsch's team had matched Argentina's tally of seven shots, the most any team have attempted in a first half against the Albiceleste since Uruguay managed eight in November 2021. Their 0.73 xG, meanwhile, topped the world champions' 0.56 at that stage. 

Alvarez's opener came as a dagger blow and they were unable to sustain their high-intensity approach for the full 90 minutes, but there were positives to take.

Ahead of Thursday's opener, the Opta supercomputer gave Canada just a 27 per cent chance of escaping Group A. While the result will have done nothing to boost those hopes, their display should offer encouragement ahead of meetings with Peru and Chile.

A festival of football is about to kick off in the United States, as the Copa America sparks into action.

Argentina, the reigning champions, get the ball rolling when they face Canada in the opening Group A match, and Lionel Messi will be the main man as ever for La Albiceleste.

Messi was the joint-leading scorer at the 2021 Copa America, netting four goals to lead the standings alongside Colombia’s Luis Diaz.

The Barcelona great is expected to be right up there again when it comes to the 2024 Copa America Golden Boot race, and here, we dive into the main candidates for that award.

Lionel Messi

Not only did Messi finish as joint-top scorer at the 2021 Copa, he was also the leading assister and then, 18 months later, he went on to lead Argentina to World Cup glory, scoring seven goals in the process, from 6.6 expected goals – only Kylian Mbappe (eight) netted more times in Qatar.

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 will 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 stands as the second-lowest out of any player to have netted at least five goals in the competition in that time.

But there can be no doubting Messi’s genius, and the little magician is entering what will surely be his final Copa in fine form – he has scored 12 goals in MLS for Inter Miami this season, outperforming his 8.3 xG and averaging a goal every 86 minutes.

Argentina are the Opta supercomputer’s favourites to win the Copa, and group matches against Canada, Chile and Peru provide Messi with a favourable jumping off point to win the Golden Boot again.

Vinicius Junior

Fresh from winning the Champions League with Real Madrid (and scoring in the final – again), Vinicius heads into the Copa America as Brazil’s talisman.

With Neymar absent through injury, the onus will fall on the winger to provide the creative spark and clinical edge to drag what looks like a more dogged, workmanlike squad through to the latter stages – Brazil are, according to our model, second favourites behind Argentina, with a 23 per cent win probability.

If the Selecao are to challenge the holders, then they need Vinicius in top form.

While he played as a split-striker for Madrid this season as Carlo Ancelotti found a way to get the best out of Jude Bellingham, Vinicius is more likely to play wide left for his country, though his cutting runs from out-to-in will make him a constant threat, as long as the likes of Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta can pick him out.

 

Vinicius netted 24 times for Los Blancos in 2023-24, and attempted 286 dribbles – 10 more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues across all competitions. He averaged 8.4 take-on attempts per 90, a tally bettered by only Jeremy Doku, while Vinicius also boasts a dribble completion rate of 3.3 per 90.

He is yet to score at the Copa America, however. That being said, he did not make a single start in 2021, with all four of his appearances coming as a substitute, having only one shot and completing only one of his seven dribbles. But such has been his stellar form under Ancelotti in the intervening three years, there is no doubting he is now Brazil’s main man.

Brazil face Costa Rica, Paraguay and in-form Colombia in Group D, but none of those defences should strike fear into Vinicius.

Luis Diaz

Diaz enjoyed a superb campaign three years ago, scoring two absolute screamers – one came in the group stage, an overhead kick against Brazil, while the other came in the third-place play-off as Colombia beat Peru; it was a stunner from outside the area, with the then-Porto winger lashing into the top-right corner after skipping in from the flank and taking on several defenders.

Indeed, the quality of Diaz’s finishes are shown by his xG in 2021, which was just 1.0. And Diaz’s excellent shooting at that edition is further evidenced by his expected goals on target (xGoT) figure of 2.2.

Diaz had only 10 shots, 18 fewer than Messi, yet boasted a hugely impressive 40 per cent shot conversion rate. Only Messi (57) and Neymar (77), meanwhile, attempted more dribbles than Diaz (43) at the 2021 edition, while it was just that superstar duo that completed more dribbles, too (Neymar 35, Messi 34, Diaz 26).

 

His performances at that tournament piqued the interest of Premier League sides, and Diaz subsequently moved to Liverpool in January 2022. So while he will not be quite the unknown quantity that he was three years ago, if he is at his best, he will still be hugely difficult to stop – especially with James Rodriguez pulling the strings behind him.

Darwin Nunez

Bookending this list of the top Golden Boot contenders is Uruguay’s Darwin Nunez. The Liverpool striker has been superb under Marcelo Bielsa, and looks to be El Loco’s main attacker, even with Luis Suarez in the squad.

Nunez scored 11 Premier League goals for the Reds in 2023-24, but underperformed his xG (16.4) by 5.4. While he was unfortunate in a sense – he hit the woodwork on nine occasions, four more times than any other player – he was also erratic in his finishing, with his xGoT dropping to 15.5. Nunez also missed 14 big chances, which ranked behind only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (34).

 

The 24-year-old may never be ultra-clinical, (he had a shot conversion rate of 10.2 per cent in the Premier League in the season just gone) but his pace, tenacity and work rate make him the ideal Bielsa folly up top.

Nunez scored a hat-trick in Uruguay’s 4-0 demolition of Mexico earlier in June, while he is the leading goalscorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, with five to his name.

Uruguay head into the tournament in fine fettle, and Bielsa will always be willing to risk it all in attack – meaning plenty of opportunities should come Nunez’s way.

They are in a group with the hosts USA, Panama and Bolivia – the worst-ranked team in the tournament – so Nunez should be aiming to make a dent early on.

Other contenders

Lautaro Martinez

Martinez has had an outstanding season for Inter, who he led to the Scudetto while finishing as top scorer in Serie A, scoring 24 goals in 33 appearances, and comfortably outperforming his 17.6 xG.

However, he has not netted for Argentina in 2026 World Cup qualifying, and is not a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni, so chances may not be of a premium for him. That being said, he did score twice in Argentina's 4-1 win over Guatemala on Friday.

 

Endrick

Boy wonder Endrick, who will link up with Vinicius, Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season, has scored three goals for Brazil in his last three appearances.

He scored those in successive matches, though he was unable to become the first Selecao player since Neymar in 2021 to net in four consecutive games as Dorival Junior’s team drew 1-1 with the USA in a warm-up match. At 17, Endrick looks like a superstar in the making, and he could be an outside bet for the Golden Boot.

Luis Suarez

Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer Suarez is bang in form heading into this tournament. The veteran has 68 goals in 138 caps and has netted 12 times already for Miami in MLS this season, averaging a goal every 96 minutes.

Of players to score at least five times in MLS in 2024, Suarez has the fourth-highest shot conversion rate, too (33.33 per cent). Uruguay are ranked as the third-favourites by the Opta supercomputer, so Suarez could have plenty of matches to add to his international goals tally.

Christian Pulisic

The USA cannot find much consistency under Gregg Berhalter, though they did draw 1-1 with Brazil in a friendly on June 13. If the hosts are to make a serious run, then they will need to channel through Pulisic.

While he is more likely to act as a creator, the attacker has proved he is more than capable of putting away chances. He scored 15 goals for Milan in 2023-24, making it the best goalscoring campaign of his career.

Argentina are preparing to defend their Copa America title, but Lionel Messi is staying realistic ahead of their opening match against Canada on Thursday.

The Albiceleste beat Brazil 1-0 in the final in 2021 to win the title for the first time since 1993 before going on to lift the World Cup just over a year later.

Since their victory over France in December 2022, Argentina have remained in strong form, losing just one of their 14 matches in all competitions and winning the other 13.

Messi, who will become the Copa America's all-time record appearance-maker when he next features in the tournament, says he expects to face a tough challenge to retain the trophy.

"Argentina are always favourites," Messi said. "I think it is going to be a very eventful tournament because national teams are becoming better and better.

"Today we are the best because we won the World Cup, but the Copa America is going to be difficult.

"It will be even, and our team is aware that we are going to have to continue doing the same and more to win again.

"We are going to try to win the Copa America again but let's remember that not everything is about winning."

Meanwhile, Canada are making their first appearance at the Copa America after qualifying through the playoffs with a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago.

They failed to get out of the group stage on their return to the world stage in Qatar two years ago, but now under new coach Jesse Marsch they are looking to make an impression before co-hosting the World Cup in 2026.

Canada had an encouraging 0-0 draw against France in their last warm-up match and will hope a squad containing Alphonso Davies, Stephen Eustaquio and Jonathan David can be competitive in a Group A that also contains Chile and Peru.

Tests do not come much tougher than the reigning champions, but Marsch is confident they have a plan to deal with the danger Argentina, and Messi, pose.

"We're excited for this tournament, we know it's a big challenge," said Marsch. "It won't be a shock to us when we encounter the quality and the level of play with Argentina.

"We'll be preparing heavily for everything that Argentina will do and prepare for what they present. Certainly, Messi is still a massive part of their team and who they are."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

Who else?

His next appearance in the Copa America will be his 35th, overtaking Chile great Sergio Livingstone, and he has scored 13 goals for Argentina in the competition along the way.

He has also provided nine Copa assists and has had more shots than any other player at the tournament since the start of the 2011 edition (102).

Canada – Cyle Larin

Larin is Canada's all-time top scorer, netting 29 times for his country in 68 appearances including a key strike in the win over Trinidad and Tobago.

Despite struggling for goals in LaLiga with Real Mallorca in 2023-24, netting just seven times in all competitions, Larin will be looking to further improve his international record at the tournament, with Lille's David (26) fast closing in on his tally.

MATCH PREDICTION: ARGENTINA WIN

Unsurprisingly, Argentina are the overwhelming favourites to start their title defence with a win and they go in with a 74.3% chance of finishing the game with three points.

Canada, meanwhile, are given just an 11% chance of claiming an upset in their Copa America debut, with the draw slightly more likely at 14.7%.

The Albiceleste have only lost once since the start of 2023, and in that run of 14 matches, they have conceded just four goals and impressively kept 11 clean sheets.

Canada failed to score in either of their warm-up friendlies against the Netherlands (4-0) and France (0-0) in the build-up to the tournament, last hitting the back of the net in March.

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

Argentina – 74.3%

Draw – 14.7%

Canada – 11%

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.

Leo Afonso scored an incredible 94th-minute winner as Inter Miami fought back to beat the Philadelphia Union 2-1 in MLS on Saturday despite being reduced to nine men.

Miami's grasp on top spot in the Eastern Conference looked like being weakened when Gerardo Martino's team – who were without both Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez as Argentina and Uruguay continue their Copa America preparations – fell behind after three minutes.

Mikael Uhre's one-on-one finish put the Union ahead, but Miami levelled just after half-time as Julian Gressel fired into the top-right corner from the centre of the box.

The Herons, though, found themselves up against it when both David Ruiz and Tomas Aviles were sent off, the former for a horror challenge on Leon Flach and the latter earning a soft second booking for kicking the ball away.

With the Union throwing men forward in search of a winner, they were struck with a sucker punch.

Afonso raced away on the counterattack, ignoring Benjamin Cremaschi to his right before slotting his finish past Oliver Semmle to hand Miami an eighth win in their last 11 games (two draws, one defeat).

Data Debrief: No Messi, no problem

Ahead of Saturday's game, Miami had only won three of their 14 matches without Messi since the Barcelona great arrived in MLS (five draws, six defeats).

However, even without Messi, Suarez or a full complement, Miami showed they are the team to beat in MLS this year.

Martino's team ended the game having enjoyed more possession (57.4 per cent), shots on target (four to three) and touches in the box (17 to 16) than Philadelphia, despite playing almost 40 minutes at least one player down. 

Angel Correa, Leonardo Balerdi and Valentin Barco have all been cut from Lionel Scaloni's Argentina squad for the Copa America.

Scaloni named a 29-man provisional squad last month, as Argentina aim to retain their title, with Lionel Messi leading the team once more.

Correa, who has 25 caps for La Albiceleste and scored three goals, came on as a substitute in their first friendly against Ecuador but remained on the bench when they faced Guatemala on Friday.

Marseille defender Balerdi has not featured for his national side since 2019, while Barco only has one international appearance to his name.

19-year-old Valentin Carboni, who was handed his first start in the 4-1 win over Guatemala, gets the nod in the squad after being receiving high praise from Messi following the game for his performance.

Enzo Fernandez missed the end of Chelsea's Premier League campaign after groin surgery but featured in both warm-up matches to retain his place.

Argentina will kick off their Copa America title defence in Group A against Canada on June 20.

Final Argentina squad: Franco Armani (River Plate), Geronimo Rulli (Ajax), Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa), Gonzalo Montiel (Nottingham Forest), Nahuel Molina (Atletico Madrid), Cristian Romero (Tottenham), German Pezzella (Real Betis), Lucas M. Quarta (Fiorentina), Nicolas Otamendi (Benfica), Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United), Marcos Acuna (Sevilla), Nicolas Tagliafico (Lyon), Guido Rodriguez (Real Betis), Leandro Paredes (Roma), Alexis Mac Allister (Liverpool), Rodrigo De Paul (Atletico Madrid), Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen), Enzo Fernandez (Chelsea), Giovani Lo Celso (Tottenham), Angel Di Maria (Benfica), Valentin Carboni (Monza), Lionel Messi (Inter Miami), Alejandro Garnacho (Manchester United), Nicolas Gonzalez (Fiorentina), Lautaro Martinez (Inter), Julian Alvarez (Manchester City).

Lionel Messi believes that Valentin Carboni has the ability to follow in his footsteps as Argentina's next star following their 4-1 victory over Guatemala. 

Messi scored twice to take his international total to 108 goals as La Albiceleste concluded their Copa America preparations with a comfortable display in Maryland.

Argentina came from behind to secure the triumph after Lisandro Martinez's own-goal gave Guatemala their first-ever goal against their opponents inside the opening five minutes.

"It cost us the first few minutes, Messi began. "We faced a team that was well positioned at the back. It was an opponent that was difficult to get into, but we were able to find a way around," Messi began.

"It is going to be more and more difficult for us; nothing is going to be easy for us. But we're going to try again."

Argentina took the lead before half-time as Carboni was fouled inside the area by Nicolas Samayoa, with Lautaro Martinez stepping up to score his first of the evening. 

Carboni has impressed in Serie A with Monza this season, scoring two goals and providing four assists, resulting in his first senior call-up from Lionel Scaloni in March. 

The 19-year-old started his first game for Argentina in the win over Guatemala, and Messi believes he has a bright future on the international stage.

"He has a present and a great future; we have to take advantage of it," said Messi. "I had already seen him in the U-20 team, but now he has changed, he has improved a lot.

"The kid is very good, more educated and with a great quality. There are also others who are good and deserve to be seen."

La Albiceleste start their Copa America campaign on June 21 against Canada in Atlanta, hoping to secure a record 16th triumph at the competition. 

"We are going to give our best," Messi started."We continue to want to continue trying to win more things.

"It's not easy, the games are hard, locked, but we will seek to achieve more and more," Messi said.

Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martinez scored twice for Argentina as they concluded their Copa America preparations with a comfortable 4-1 victory over Guatemala. 

Argentina found themselves behind inside four minutes when Lisandro Martinez's own goal handed Guatemala their first-ever goal against La Albiceleste.

However, Messi, who was featuring for the 182nd time for his country, levelled the contest eight minutes later as goalkeeper Nicholas Hagen's poor clearance fell kindly into his path.

Lionel Scaloni's team were awarded a penalty just before half-time as Nicolas Samayoa fouled Valentin Carboni, with Martinez stepping from 12 yards to score. 

Messi and Martinez combined for Argentina's third goal, with the latter doubling his tally after he was picked out by his team-mate in the area.

Messi put the result beyond doubt late on, lofting the ball over Hagen after latching onto a fine pass from his former Paris Saint-Germain team-mate, Angel Di Maria. 

Argentina kick off their Group A campaign against Canada on June 21 before facing Chile and Peru in their quest to retain their Copa America title. 

Data Debrief: Messi and Martinez make light work of minnows

Guatemala were simply no match for their illustrious opponents at FedEx Field, managing only four attempts and getting none of those on target, mustering 0.18 expected goals.

Argentina finished with 3.07 xG, with Martinez (1.47) and Messi (1.3) responsible for the majority of that figure. Between them, they had 13 shots, nine more than Guatemala managed as a team.

Saturday's MLS clash between the Philadelphia Union and Inter Miami will require both teams to cope without key players, but Jim Curtin is viewing it as an opportunity.

Miami will be without Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez for the match, with the duo preparing to represent Argentina and Uruguay, respectively, at the Copa America.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, will have to make do without 10-goal leading scorer Daniel Gazdag, who is part of Hungary's squad for Euro 2024.

Asked about the difficulties of coping without Gazdag, Curtin pointed out that Miami will also need to adjust and highlighted 20-year-old midfielder Jack McGlynn as an example of a player who could stand to benefit. 

"He's not a 10 but he has the passing range to unlock a defence," Curtin said of McGlynn. "Maybe he does it from a deeper position, but we might need him to be a little more aggressive.

"Unfortunately, he won't be passing the ball to Daniel Gazdag so all these things weigh in, just like Jordi Alba won't be combining with Messi. 

"Both teams aren't at full strength, so we have to make the most of what it is. I see this as an opportunity to bring out players' skills, like with Jack."

Miami lead the way in the Eastern Conference with 35 points, 15 clear of the eighth-placed Union having played two additional matches.

Since Messi joined the Herons last year, they have only won three of 14 matches without him, drawing five and losing six. 

The Argentine's minutes were managed ahead of him linking up with Argentina, which coach Gerardo Martino says was necessary. 

"With the passage of time, one sees the body does not recover in the same way," he told TyC Sports this week. 

"He understands it, he sees that there are trips that are high-risk and long. That's why we started to agree on when it is necessary for him to stop."

PLAYERS TO WATCH 

Philadelphia Union – Jack McGlynn

McGlynn, who is expected to play a major role for the United States at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, has two goals and four assists this season.

That first figure is a joint career best, while the latter is a new personal benchmark. The cultured left-footer could be set to play a central role at Subaru Park.

Inter Miami – Sergio Busquets

With Messi and Suarez absent, it could be down to Busquets to lead the way for Miami. 

The Barcelona great trails only Riqui Puig (1,330) for successful passes in MLS this year (1,115), and four of his 17 chances created have become assists. 

MATCH PREDICTION – DRAW

Miami have won two of their last four away games against Philadelphia (one draw, one defeat). 

They are one of just three teams (alongside New York City and Orlando City) with multiple road wins over the Union since the start of the 2021 season.

Philadelphia have struggled at home in general lately, going six regular-season matches without a win (two draws, four defeats) at Subaru Park. 

Since last September, they have only won two of their 13 league games on home soil (seven draws, four defeats), with only two MLS sides collecting fewer home points than their 13 since that run began.

However, with both teams missing key players, it is difficult to have much confidence in either. A draw could be on the cards, with Miami lacking their usual firepower. 

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY 

Philadelphia Union – 38.4%

Inter Miami – 35.2%

Draw – 26.5%

Lionel Messi has ruled out the possibility of participating in the Paris Olympics, conceding "it would be too much to play two straight tournaments".

Messi is gearing up for Argentina's Copa America title defence, which begins against Canada on June 20, while they will also face Chile and Peru in Group A.

The final takes place on July 14, with the Olympic tournament beginning in Paris 10 days later. 

With three overage players allowed per team in the primarily under-23 event, leading to speculation that Messi could feature for La Albiceleste.

However, the 36-year-old, who was a gold medallist in Beijing 16 years ago, revealed he would not be partcipating following a discussion with Argentina under-23s coach - and former team-mate - Javier Mascherano.

"I talked to Mascherano and the truth is we both understood the situation," Messi told ESPN.

"It's hard [to think about the Olympics right now] because we're in Copa America. It would be two, three straight months of not being with the club, and more than anything, I'm not at an age to be in everything.

"I have to choose carefully, and it would be too much to play two straight tournaments. I've been very lucky to play in the Olympics, and win it together with [Mascherano].

"It was a wonderful experience on a football level. Olympics, under-20s, memories I'll never forget."

Lionel Messi knows his illustrious career is running out of time as the Argentina great suggested his club playing days will end with Inter Miami.

The Barcelona legend completed a switch to MLS side Miami last year after two decades of European football with the Blaugrana and Paris Saint-Germain.

As Messi starts to prepare for Argentina's Copa America defence this month, retirement remains a pertinent question for the global superstar.

The 36-year-old, speaking to ESPN, acknowledged Miami will likely "be my last club" as the fear sets in over ending his playing career sooner rather than later.

"I've done this all of my life; I love playing ball," the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner said on Wednesday. 

"I enjoy the practices and the day-to-day, the games. There's a bit of fear that it's all ending. It's always there. It was a difficult step leaving Europe to come here [Miami].

"The fact we won the World Cup helped, it helped a lot, to see things in another way. But I try not to think about it, I try to enjoy it.

"I do that more now because I'm aware that there's not a lot of time left. So I have a good time with the club, being lucky to have good team-mates and friends at my side.

"I enjoy my time with the national team, where I also have good friends, too, and a lot. I enjoy those small details that I know I'll miss when I stop playing."

Messi is Barcelona's all-time top scorer with 672 goals, as well as lifting four Champions League trophies amid a glittering career.

Yet the ageing forward insists World Cup glory in 2022 remains his crowning moment, following in the footsteps of late Albiceleste great Diego Maradona.

"Obviously, I was sad that he couldn't experience what we experienced [winning the 2022 World Cup], because I know what he felt for the national team and what he would say about Argentina being world champion again," he added.

"We went through a World Cup together which aside from the result was an impressive experience, going through that day-to-day with him, how happy he was, seeing him enjoy being the manager.

"So I try to remember all the good times that we had together. I know that he loved me a lot, and I loved him, despite what was said in the media.

"The reality is we had a lot of affection for each other, and since he met me he was always supportive and wanted the best for me.

"It was a shame that he couldn't live to experience it like the rest of the country did."

Bradley Carnell is taking last week's 3-3 draw with Inter Miami as a sign of St. Louis City making huge strides in attack, as they prepare to host the Portland Timbers on Saturday.

St. Louis sit 11th in the Western Conference, three points behind the improving Timbers, after playing out a thrilling draw with Lionel Messi and company.

That result ended a three-match losing run for Carnell's team, and he hopes it will represent something of a turning point in their season.

"When you score three goals and create the amount of chances we did, I saw a lot of good things against a counter-pressing Miami team with a full roster," Carnell said.

"To go away from home and score three goals, it gives me a lot of hope. We've been working hard on exploiting space in transition as that's our bread and butter.

"We're excited about the development of some of the guys, we're happy for the success they're now getting. That gives me hope for the games coming up."

The Timbers, meanwhile, have taken seven points from their last three games to move into a playoff position, drawing 2-2 with the Houston Dynamo following wins over Sporting Kansas City (2-1) and Austin FC (2-0).

Boss Phil Neville said: "We're looking forward to the game, it's always tough to go to St. Louis. They're a high-pressing team that don't give you a moment on the ball.

"The players have trained well all week, coming off the back of a really good week. We put in a massive effort.

"We're focused for tomorrow. It's going to be a good game and we're really looking forward to it."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

St. Louis City – Indiana Vassilev

Vassilev scored just his second goal of the year against Miami last time out. 

Only Celio Pompeu (34) and Joao Klauss (21) have topped his 20 key passes this term among St. Louis team-mates, so he could hold the key to opening up the Timbers.

Portland Timbers – Evander

Evander assisted two of the Timbers' goals last time out, taking his total to seven assists this season, along with seven goals.

No Portland player had ever reached seven goals and seven assists in fewer than 18 appearances at the start of an MLS season before this year (Diego Valeri doing so in both 2017 and 2018).

MATCH PREDICTION – ST. LOUIS CITY WIN

St. Louis and Portland both recorded 2-1 away wins over one another last season, with both games being played before the end of April. Three of the six goals in those matches were scored in the 75th minute or later.

St. Louis' 3-3 draw with Miami last week was their 15th regular-season game with at least three goals scored, two more than any other team since they joined MLS last year.

Coming up against a leaky Portland defence, which has shipped 32 goals in just 17 matches this term, Carnell's men could get some joy.

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

St. Louis City – 43.5%

Portland Timbers – 29.7%

Draw – 26.8% 

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