Local media in Argentina may still be caught up in the historic relegation of River Plate, a side that until a few days ago had never in its long and illustrious history found itself out of the Argentinean Primera, but for the rest of the world the bigger story in South America is the 2011 Copa America that kicks off on Friday at 9:45PM local time (8:45PM EST & 1:45AM in the wee hours of Saturday GMT), when the hosts face Bolivia in Group A action. And with the biggest international tournament of the summer about to start, it seems only right to run through the countries involved, the times for all the games, and to note the handful of Liverpool connections that will be on display over the next month...
Group A - Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica
There's no rooting interest to be found in Group A from a Liverpool point of view, even if Argentina's Javier Mascherano did his best to get back in the fans' good books after Barcelona's Champions League victory over Manchester United when he took it upon himself to dedicate a portion of the win to Liverpool fans.
Somke 'em if you've got 'em.
In any case, he'll be anchoring a single-pivot 4-3-3 for Argentina after the country went out and got Sergio Batista, a genuine manager, to put things right after an underwhelming World Cup performance under everybody's favourite former handball specialst, current puffily besuited garden gnome, and not particularly good manager Diego Maradona. Moving to a system that is almost a carbon copy of Barcelona's with Messi up top as a false-nine leading the line has already brought good results—including a friendly victory over Brazil in the fall—and has everybody thinking that on home soil this could be their year to put on a show in the Copa. On the other hand, in recent years Argentina has been a country at times living on its past reputation to compensate for present shortcomings, and so for many there will be a healthy skepticism until performances prove otherwise.
Elsewhere in a fairly weak group, many will see Colombia as the most likely darkhorse there to pick up the pieces should Brazil falter, and with recently rumoured Liverpool target Cristian Zapata a nailed on starter at center back and current Porto ace and rumoured Chelsea target Falcao leading the attack they're certainly the strongest side after Argentina. Bolivia, on the other hand, with a squad made up largely of players based in that country's own Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano, is on few shortlists when it comes to sides expected to go deep into the tournament, and Costa Rica is similarly there just to make up the numbers—and as they're an invited side from outside the South American federation who came in late to replace Japan when they pulled out following the major earthquake and tsunami earlier in the year, in this case they quite literally are there to make up the numbers. Still, that doesn't mean one should miss Costa Rica's matches in particular, as in manager Ricardo La Volpe they have perhaps the most captivating sideline presence at the tournament: A chain-smoking, bearded man in a suit who will publicly curse out anybody who tries to stop him from satisfying his nicotine craving while his team runs around on the pitch. Though one might imagine he'll be given an easier time of it in Argentina than he was with Mexico at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Group B - Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela
The group without an invited nation is home to tournament co-favourite and a definite point of interest for Liverpool fans with Brazil, who have won four of the last five editions of the competition. The only thing stopping them from being a clear favourite yet again is that this year's Copa takes place in Argentina, and that Brazil will have a very young side with eyes on building towards the 2014 World Cup. Liverpool's Lucas will receive the number five from manager Mano Menezes and anchor a double-pivot midfield alongside Chelsea's Ramires, while in attack wunderkinds (and occasionally rumoured Liverpool targets) Lucas Moura and Neymar will buzz in and around the likes of Robinho, Ganso, Pato, and Fred in a system that at times will likely look a bit like a 4-2-2-2 and a bit like a 4-2-3-1 but that in any case will get almost all of its width from Alves and Santos from fullback. It's a very young side, but also a very attacking one that could grow into something special for Brazil in time for 2014. Though that focus on the future won't stop many—both in Brazil and around the world—from expecting glory in the here and now.
Paraguay is a distant second in the group, unlikely to seriously challenge Brazil for top honours, though with Victor Caceres breaking up play in midfield and Roque Santa Cruz leading the line they're well positioned to be best of the rest. Beyond them, Ecuador and Venezuela are hoping to do well enough to help their chances of squeaking into the next World Cup. Looking for positives, Ecuador does have United's Antonio Valencia and former Birmingham striker Christian Benitez to call on. And seeing only negatives, Venezuela has beaten Brazil once in the past 41 years. In any case, don't expect much.
Group C - Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay
In theory at least, Group C initially appears the strongest in the Copa despite seeming less likely to provide the eventual winner than Group A or B. Though with Argentina's recent struggles and Brazil's youth, the expectations will never been higher than this year for Uruguay. The former South American powerhouse hasn't been racking up the silverware in recent decades, but with legitimate question marks surrounding Brazil and Argentina and their strong performance at last year's World Cup, this is a side that could do some damage and that some might argue on current form and results is in fact the best in the confederation. While that seems as though it might be setting the bar a little high, there's no doubting they'll be a dangerous side with a strong attack. And of course that attack will draw a large degree of interest from Liverpool fans eager to see Luis Suarez operate in a largely free role in and around Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani.
If everybody will be expecting a strong outing from Uruguay, Chile will be much more of a mystery despite their noteworthy performances last summer. Then, innovative taskmaster Marcelo Bielsa was driving them, combining hard work and an innovative system with a 3-man defensive line to overcome the side's shortcomings and punch above their weight, but following a falling-out with the Chilean FA's new president he finds himself preparing to take on the manager's job at Bilbao instead of managing for the country he'd become a kind of cult hero for. And so Chile goes into the tournament led by the far less intense Claudio Borghi. Still, for those who watched Chile at the World Cup with fondness, many of the players remain the same and it will be interesting to see if they can continue to punch above their weight without Bielsa cracking the whip.
With the departure of Bielsa the group becomes perhaps a touch weaker than it might appear at first glance, a situation that repeats itself when taking a deeper look at invitee Mexico, fresh off a thrilling victory over the United States in the Gold Cup. In their case, they will be sending something of a B-team to compete in South America while the players who took part in the Gold Cup go on their summer breaks before returning to club football. Beyond simply sending a weakened squad, however, a recent scandal—either a bland case of "indiscipline" or the more racy "hiring prostitutes while at the team hotel and having them steal your stuff, getting lots of unwanted coverage in the press in the process"—has led to a further eight of those B-team members having to be replaced. Still, they have some noteworthy players involved, such as left back Paul Aguilar and attacker Giovani dos Santos, and any side taking them lightly could find themselves in trouble.
The group is rounded out by Peru, again not a bad side on paper but one currently wracked by injuries to its largely South American-based squad. They may hope to eventually build themselves into something of a secondary continental power, and for some there were hopes that this year would see the start of that, but with their injuries it seems more likely they will find themselves fighting for scraps at the wrong end of Group C with Mexico.
Group Stage Schedule
July 1 - Argentina v Bolivia 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 2)
July 2 - Colombia v Costa Rica 3:30PM ART/2:30 PM EST/7:30PM GMT
July 3 - Brazil v Venezuela 4PM ART/3PM EST/8PM GMT
July 3 - Paraguay v Ecuador 6:30PM ART/5:30 PM EST/10:30PM GMT
July 4 - Uruguay v Peru 7:15PM ART/6:15PM EST/11:15PM GMT
July 4 - Chile v Mexico 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 5)
July 6 - Argentina v Colombia 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 7)
July 7 - Bolivia v Costa Rica 7:15PM ART/6:15PM EST/11:15PM GMT
July 8 - Uruguay v Chile 7:15PM ART/6:15PM EST/11:15PM GMT
July 8 - Peru v Mexico 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 9)
July 9 - Brazil v Paraguay 4PM ART/3PM EST/8PM GMT
July 9 - Ecuador v Venezuela 6:30PM ART/5:30 PM EST/10:30PM GMT
July 10 - Colombia v Bolivia 4PM ART/3PM EST/8PM GMT
July 11 - Argentina v Costa Rica 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 12)
July 12 - Chile v Peru 7:15PM ART/6:15PM EST/11:15PM GMT
July 12 - Uruguay v Mexico 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 13)
July 13 - Paraguay v Venezuela 7:15PM ART/6:15PM EST/11:15PM GMT
July 13 - Brazil v Ecuador 9:45PM ART/8:45PM EST/1:45AM GMT (July 14)
Unfortunately for many, in the United States the Copa America is only being shown on Univision in Spanish, though in the UK it will be available on ESPN. The tournament will also be streamed live to many countries via an official Youtube channel, while reliable streaming sites such as MyP2P, StopStream, and ATDHE will also carry the matches.