James Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi, Neymar: 12 Copa America players to watch

The 44th Copa America starts in Thursday, June 11, in Chile. Here are 12 players to watch out for a South America’s biggest tournament.

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Colombia – James Rodriguez

A gifted attacking midfielder with a magical left foot, Rodriguez was the inspiration behind Colombia’s run to the last eight at the World Cup in Brazil last year.

He finished as the tournament top scorer after notching six goals in five matches, including a spectacular effort against Uruguay which was voted as Fifa’s best goal of the year.

Many felt that he, and not Lionel Messi, should have been given the Player of the Tournament award and it was on the back of those performances that Real Madrid signed him from AS Monaco.

He helped Banfield win their first Argentine league title as a teenager in 2009 and then moved to FC Porto where his potential became obvious.

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Chile – Alexis Sanchez

Chile are pinning their hopes of a first ever Copa America title mainly on brilliant forward Alexis Sanchez, who has had a fine first season in the English Premier League with Arsenal capped by a stunning goal in their FA Cup final victory.

Sanchez is hard to pin down for rival defences with his speed of thought and skill on the ball. His role in the team is also free-roving as he operates as a striker, winger and attacking midfielder.

To get the best out of himself he needs the help of the Chile midfield and notably Arturo Vidal of Juventus, who was not at his best at last year’s World Cup having just recovered from knee surgery.

Coach Jorge Sampaoli believes the backbone of his team will start the tournament in their best shape, Claudio Bravo in goal, Gary Medel at the back with Vidal and Jorge Valdivia in midfield, setting up the platform for Sanchez to deliver.

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Argentina – Lionel Messi

The world’s best who, after getting over the disappointment of losing the 2014 World Cup final to Germany, has had a brilliant season leading Barcelona to the La Liga title, Copa del Rey victory and Champions League final.

He has scored some of his best goals this year, not least the opener in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, and laid on many for fellow forwards Neymar and Luis Suarez and shown maturing leadership qualities.

His presence alone makes Argentina favourites but he has teammates who can be brilliant too on their day in Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, capable of inspiring the country to their first title since 1993.

Messi played in the 2007 final which Argentina lost to Brazil in Venezuela and the side that lost to Uruguay on penalties in the 2011 quarter-finals when he was struggling to replicate his Barcelona form for his county.

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Brazil – Neymar

Brazil will once again rely heavily on their Barcelona striker, who, even at just 23 years old, is the stand-out performer in what can sometimes be a un-Brazilian team loaded with journeymen and lacking the skillful ball players of old.

Neymar has scored eight of Brazil’s last 18 goals and is the fulcrum of all that is creative at national level. Mature beyond his years, he has won 62 caps in record time and happily assumes the responsibility heaped on his young shoulders.

After starting out at Santos, where he was the most exciting player since Pele led the club in their golden era of the 1960s, Neymar went to Barcelona in 2013 and has since established himself as one of the key players in that great side.

He scored 38 goals in 50 games for the Catalan club this season, his best so far, and will be playing in the Copa America for only the second time in his career.

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Uruguay – Diego Godin

Centre back Godin is the defensive lynchpin of the team in the absence of former captain Diego Lugano as Uruguay set out to defend the title they won in Argentina four years ago.

He has built a solid career at Atletico Madrid as part of Diego Simeone’s side that have threatened the two-team hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga.

He has scored some fine headed goals for club and country like the one in last year’s Champions League final that very nearly gave Atletico the title before Real hit back with a last gasp equaliser before winning 4-1 after extra time.

Godin will be partnered in central defence by young Atletico teammate Jose Maria Gimenez or Liverpool’s Sebastian Coates, who played on loan at Sunderland last season and was voted best young player at the 2011 Copa America.

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Paraguay – Nestor Ortigoza

Argentine-born Ortigoza is typical of the modern Paraguay midfielder with his command of the centre of the field, good marking and judicial ball distribution. He is also an accomplished penalty taker.

He has spent all his playing career in Argentina, apart from the 2012/13 season with Emirates Club in the UAE, the highlight being victory in the Copa Libertadores with San Lorenzo last year, scoring the deciding goal with a penalty.

The 30-year-old obtained Paraguayan citizenship in time to play in the 2010 World Cup side that reached the quarter-finals for the first time and the 2011 Copa America final in Argentina.

Ortigoza will be looking to help Paraguay overcome the disappointment of failing to reach last year’s World Cup finals in Brazil with a good showing in Chile in a group containing favourites Argentina and title holders Uruguay.

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Mexico – Rafael Marquez

At 36, the former Barcelona player has been involved with the Mexico side for 18 years and still shows no signs of wanting to call it a day.

In Brazil last year, he became the first player from any country to captain his side at four World Cups. He is also the first Mexican player to have scored at three successive World Cups.

Marquez spent seven years at Barcelona, then moved to New York Red Bulls where he had an unhappy, injury-prone two-year spell.

His career found a second wind when he returned to Mexico to play for Leon and last year’s World Cup display earned him a move to Serie A side Verona.

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Jamaica – Rodolph Austin

The uncompromising midfielder, who has won 80 international caps, is Jamaica’s captain and heartbeat.

He was released by Leeds United at the end of last season after three seasons with the English Championship club in which he was popular with the fans but experienced disciplinary problems.

He won the Caribbean Cup with Jamaica in 2008, 2010 and 2014 and was named most valuable player in the last two tournaments.

Austin scored with a free kick to help Jamaica beat the United States 2-1 in 2012, their first victory over the US in 19 matches.

He captained the Reggae Boyz to victory in the 2014 Caribbean Cup, scoring the winning penalty in a 4-3 shootout victory over Trinidad and Tobago in the final.

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Peru – Paolo Guerrero

Top scorer in the last Copa America tournament with five goals, Guerrero is also the leading marksman in the current Peru squad with 21 goals, outstripping even Claudio Pizarro.

The 31-year-old has found a new lease of life since joining Corinthians, where he is a cult figure after scoring the winning goal in the 2012 Club World Cup final against Chelsea.

Guerrero, who has a well-documented fear of flying, has also played for Bayern Munich, and had six seasons with Hamburg.

A fiery character, he was once given a six-month international ban for insulting a referee and was suspended in Germany for throwing a bottle at a fan who insulted him.

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Bolivia – Marcelo Martins

Born to a Brazilian father and Bolivian mother, Martins was raised in Brazil, began his professional career there and even played for the Brazilian Under 18 team.

Leading scorer in the Copa Libertadores for Cruzeiro with eight goals in 2008, the 27-year-old has enjoyed mixed fortunes at club level, winning national titles in Ukraine and Brazil interspersed with unhappy spells at other clubs.

His career has taken him to Cruzeiro, Gremio and Flamengo in Brazil, plus Shakhtar Donetsk, Werder Bremen and Wigan Atheltic and he is now in China with Changchun Yatai.

He has scored 12 goals for his country, although the last was two years ago.

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Ecuador – Jefferson Montero

Usually to be found on the left wing, Montero’s speed, trickery and electric finishing make him an instant crowd pleaser and he can be unplayable on his day.

The 25-year-old has shown plenty of flashes of his ability during his first season with English Premier League club Swansea City, although some nagging injuries have hampered his progress.

His early career was hampered by a rather too many club changes. Already, he has played at Emelec and Independiente Jose Teran at home, been loaned to Sinaloa in Mexico, moved to Villarreal in Spain, then loaned to Levante and Real Betis.

He finally settled down by spending two years at Morelia in Mexico before earning a move to Swansea, helping them enjoy a season way above expectations.

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Venezuela – Tomas Rincon

The key player in midfield where he keeps play ticking over with his intelligent passing, Rincon had an outstanding Copa America four years ago when Venezuela reached the semi-finals.

A strong tackler, he spent five seasons with Hamburg before moving to Genoa this season, giving him ample top flight experience in Europe.

Raised at UA Maracaibo, he also played for Zamora and Deportivo Tachira in his homeland.

Published: June 9, 2015 04:00 AM

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