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Copa America: Green Shoots In Group A

The 2007 edition of the Copa America yielded a mighty average of 3.15 goals per game, nations throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of glory with expansive attacking play. The competition has yet to begin firing in the same manner this time around, the 8 matches so far producing only 10 goals, with the 4 Group A games accounting for half of these.

Costa Rica's star performer - Joel Campbell

Hopefully Thursday night’s encounter between Bolivia and Costa Rica will herald the start of the tournament everyone expected. It would not have been in the diaries of many when the fixtures came out, but the game was a far more “traditional” and enjoyable Copa match. With caution thrown to the wind, there was plenty of space on the park as both teams appeared to try and win the game, something of a novelty thus far.

After a staunch defensive display in grinding out a proud draw against the hosts in the opening game, the more aggressive tactics did not pay off for a Bolivian side for whom a win would have all but secured a quarter-final berth. Indeed, they will now struggle to get there, needing victory in their final game against a, shall we say, interesting Colombia.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, showed themselves to not be the waste of a tournament space they at first seemed to be. An early red card against current group leaders Colombia did not help matters, but an inexperienced squad made up of largely players aged 22 and under offered nothing in their first outing. Versus Bolivia, imbibed with the freedom of a “nothing to lose” mentality, the young team played much more positively; a slice of good fortune (the first good looked just a shade offside) and the subsequent implosion of their opponents aided their victory, but the Costa Ricans deserves credit for their performance.

The shining star was young striker Joel Campbell; dangerous and quick in the dribble with an apparent passion for running at defenders, he capped his display with a goal, finishing neatly when through with only the keeper to beat. Three points certainly gives them a shout of progression from the group (this total alone could be all that is required) and adds an increased competitive element to the final game against Argentina on Monday. Campbell will surely relish the chance to run at a shaky Argentine back four.

Ah, Argentina: hosts and pre-tournament (in fact STILL) favourites, they have been nothing less than an abject disappointment in their two games to this point. Blame has been levelled at various players and the manager, but it is Sergio Batista must be held most accountable at this time; player and system selection can certainly be improved upon. The weak, to put it politely, back four does not provide the best base to build from, but there are not exactly an overwhelming number of options at the manager’s disposal.

The full-backs are not built (not any longer, in Zanetti’s case) to bomb forward and support the attack; Maradona’s slightly eyebrow-raising use of Jonas Gutierrez at right/left-back would be a welcome option at this stage. The make up of the midfield is unnecessarily defensive given there is no rampaging full-back who may leave the defence exposed; it would be nice to see one of Cambiasso or Mascherano depart, allowing Banega to drop a little deeper and Pastore to enter the fray.

The front three have not yet hit the sparkling heights they all enjoyed during their respective club seasons: with Angel Di Maria and an (I think) under-appreciated Gonzalo Higuain waiting in the wings, game three should really see either, maybe even both, Tevez or Lavezzi removed from the starting XI. Time is not yet running out for the hosts to find their rhythm, but a slack performance against a newly confident Costa Rica could bring the bell tolling all too abruptly.

Zuniga and Armero - Proper wing backs

Zuniga and Armero - Proper wing backs

And we now arrive at Colombia: a lacklustre, albeit efficient, performance gained them a victory over Costa Rica in game one. They were much improved in game two and really should have beaten Argentina, having much the better and more of the chances (Moreno’s miss with the goal gaping from twelve yards remains inexplicable). Vibrant and with skilled personal throughout, they are dangerous outsiders: Pablo Armero and Juan Zuniga are the full-backs Argentina dream of having, equipped with athleticism and pace; Fredy Guarin ran the midfield against the hosts, strong on the ball and an intelligent user of it; Radamel Falcao is the star up front and the focal point of the attack- he’s not quite been at his best yet, but the quality is there.

The draw with Argentina could prove to be a watershed moment, as they should now top the group and thereby avoid a difficult quarter-final against Uruguay or Chile. Colombia should only get better as the tournament progresses and none of the other nations will savour the prospect of meeting them further down the line.

Group A does not quite hold the shape we expected after two games apiece. The pressure is on Argentina to finally start delivering, more so than ever before.

When Matthew Campbell isn’t writing for The Football Express, he occasionally posts the odd thought or two on twitter at @mattc236. But you will more readily find him, head hung over a pint, considering the disaster that was Jordan Stewart when he was Watford’s left back.

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