The Alexis Enigma
Positive bulletins from the camp of the defending champions, Chile, about the recovering state of their star player’s ankle ahead of Monday’s fixture against Japan. About the state of Alexis Sanchez’s form and confidence, less certainty.
There are few footballers at the Copa with more reason to welcome this summer challenge than Sanchez. He was the Player of the Tournament at the last edition, the 2016 Centenario, and he scored the winning goal, in the penalty shootout, at the 2015 Copa. Summers continued to bless him after those MVP efforts, too.
At the 2017 Confederations Cup, where Chile reached the final, he collected the Silver Ball, for the tournament’s second best individual. His goal there against Germany established him as his country’s all-time greatest goalscorer.
Fast forward two years, and Sanchez, 30, finds himself as a very different sort of MVP: Manchester’s Vexing Problem. Signed from Arsenal, where his contract was running down and where he had twice been the club’s player of the season, by Manchester United in January 2018, he entered a trough from which there has apparently been no escape route, not even for a striker of his remarkable energy and capacity for innovation.
The figures condemn the transfer as one of the least productive pieces of Premier League business of the past 18 months: United’s highest-earner has scored a mere three league goals in 32 appearances. Last season, he made the starting line-up just nine times in the league before picking up his ankle injury before the final game.
Viewed from Chile, the decline has been mystifying, but manager Reinaldo Rueda expects to see the old Alexis at this Copa. “He’s on the right road, and he’s really worked hard to recover from the injury,” Rueda said. “How much we risk him in the first game remains to be seen. He’s important to us, and we wouldn’t want to set him back.”
Queiroz the Globetrotter
Two teams, the guest ‘outsiders’ Japan and Qatar, will be competing in their second continental tournament of the year in Brazil. They were finalists at the Asian Cup in the UAE six months ago. Another semi-finalist from that event is at the Copa, too, as manager of a Colombia with prospects of at least a semi-final.
When Carlos Queiroz takes his place in the technical area for the Group B opener in Salvador against Argentina, he will complete a remarkable record of guiding national teams from four different continents at major tournaments.
The Mozambique-born Portuguese, who was briefly in charge of the UAE in the late 1990s and Real Madrid in 2003-04, oversaw South Africa’s run to the semi-final of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, led Portugal at the 2010 World Cup and his eight years with Iran featured two World Cups and a semi-final at the 2019 Asian Cup. He’s covered North America, too, as coach of the New York MetroStars in the mid-1990s.
Brazil heading back to Belo Horizonte?
Looming on the schedule for the hosts and favourites, Brazil, is a resonant date with destiny. Should Brazil top their Group A and pass through the quarter-final, they will head to Belo Horizonte for their semi. Echoes? Plenty.
The city’s Mineirao stadium was the venue for a seismic World Cup semi-final five years ago, the one Brazil went into anxious about the absence of Neymar with injury and with the suffocating pressure of a nation bearing down on them.
The humiliation of that night, the 7-1 defeat to Germany, is now known as the ‘Mineirazo’, and as a national catastrophe. So, bravo to the hosts for not scheduling the fixtures so Brazil could skirt the possibility of going there for another semi-final, with, yes, Neymar injured, and with, yes, the suffocating pressure of a nation bearing down on them.
Edi and Luis, Uruguay’s eternal menace
Born in the same city, Salto, barely three weeks apart, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, both 32, have just celebrated the eleventh anniversary of the first shared call-up for Uruguay’s senior squad.
Seventy-seven goals and 32 assists later, they still look as potent a front pairing as any in South America, and with Suarez reporting a satisfactory recovery from the knee injury that limited him to just the 21 Liga goals for Barcelona last season, they are two good reasons to imagine Uruguay have a strong chance of regaining the title they last held in 2011.