The conundrums of CONMEBOL
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- On the road to Rio, there will invariably be points on the map that provide moments for pause and inquiry. One such instance occurred Sunday in Argentina, where Uruguay romped past Paraguay 3-0 to win the Copa America.
While the deserved reward of a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup is something to assess in the long term, a more pressing question emerged after coach Oscar Tabarez's squad picked up its record 15th continental title.
Is Uruguay the best team in CONMEBOL?
La Celeste deserve all the platitudes given them after putting together their best effort of the six-match tournament in the final. Diego Forlan, whose 12-match scoring drought in international play put him in critics' crosshairs, silenced them in emphatic fashion with a pair of goals, and Uruguay followed its fourth-place finish in South Africa last summer with a title that now puts it in the mix as a potential World Cup contender in Brazil in 2014.
Forlan's name may be in bright lights for La Celeste's global marquee, but strike partner Luis Suarez is most worthy of equal billing. Named the best player of Copa America, Suarez scored Uruguay's other goal and finished with four - second only to Peru's Paolo Guerrero.
On the backline, Sebastian Coates was elected best young player of the Copa America, and the 20-year-old likely will earn himself a big payday should he decide to jump from his domestic club side Nacional in Montevideo to Europe or another South American country.
La Celeste have two rarities in their favor heading into qualifying. One is Tabarez, an outlier as a coach who will start a second World Cup campaign with a South American nation. The second is a cohesion and chemistry that cannot be dismissed - 20 of Uruguay's 23 players on the Copa roster were also in South Africa.
Uruguay's ascendancy, though, answers only half the question about being the best team in South America. The other half comes from sifting through the wreckage of standard bearers Brazil and Argentina.
In some ways, Brazil's quarterfinal loss to Paraguay on penalty kicks is easy to dismiss. Albirroja goalkeeper Justo Villar had the match of his life in a scoreless draw, making eight saves, and then denied Thiago Silva from the 12-yard spot before Selecao teammates Elano, Andre Santos and Fred also failed to convert.
The 0-0 scoreline hides the fact Brazil had the run of play for nearly all the match. The Selecao were underwhelming in the early stages of group play, but coach Mano Menezes' squad - a blend of veterans and youngsters - gradually found their way and showed improvement in its final two matches.
Brazil faces a double-edged sword as host country. Its backline, long overlooked due to its rich history of playmakers and goal-scorers, is now its strength as Dani Alves, Maicon, Lucio, Adriano and Silva form the backbone of this team.
The challenge for the five-time World Cup champions will be shortening the learning curve of their young players through friendlies as opposed to the meat-grinder of qualifying. There is loads of youth up front - Lucas is 18, Neymar is 19, Alexandre Pato and Paulo Henrique Ganso are 21 - the question is who among the four will be able to deliver.
Finding talent is not the problem for Argentina, which exited Copa in a fiery wreck in the quarterfinals and further added to the hand-wringing of a nation impatient for any sort of title. Argentina's last notable championship came in the 1993 Copa America, and it is still capable of lifting a third World Cup title on the grounds of its fiercest rival come 2014.
The Albiceleste have two problems. Finding a coach who actually utilizes and comprehends tactics would solve the first issue, and Gerardo Martino is expected to decide Thursday if he will leave Paraguay to inherit the mess Sergio Batista has created.
Batista did little more than roll out the ball for 11 talented players in hopes they would simply lay siege to the opponents' goal. When that plan faltered with the first XI, he would substitute Gonzalo Higuain and Diego Milito as reinforcements.
Batista essentially played a 4-6 formation that let Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Esteban Cambiasso and Angel Di Maria all make singular runs into the teeth of the defense and then shoot on goal. Other coaches do this, but they're usually at the U-8 level.
As a result, the host nation lamented what could have been if Juan Riquelme decided to accept Batista's invitation to play for the Albiceleste. This is the second issue - Argentina lacks a bona fide No. 10 who can serve as distributor for a squad that has an absolute embarrassment of scoring riches.
And that midfielder doesn't have to be as good as Riquelme. He doesn't even have to be as good as Ariel Ortega, who was no slouch himself. Someone who can simply take a pass from the backline and provide service to forwards and attacking wing players who have proven to be willing runners and clinical finishers would make this team feared in little time.
Lastly, while Uruguay basks in its success and Brazil and Argentina regroup, Chile was stuck in a holding pattern. La Roja played well in the group stage, taking seven of a possible nine points, only to be stunned by Venezuela in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.
Coach Claudio Borghi showed the ability to improvise with his roster as injuries and suspensions took a toll, and no one was clamoring for predecessor Marco Bielsa. Chile should be in the top tier of CONMEBOL, but Alexis Sanchez may be the player who pushes this team higher.
After leaving Italian side Udinese for Barcelona following a $37.2 million transfer fee Monday, Sanchez will get his first real taste of the grind that comes with being a year-round marquee player at both club and country levels. If he finds success with the Catalans, greater success with Chile won't be far behind.
Updated July 27, 2011