Lionel Messi takes centre stage again for Copa America

World champions Argentina get an expanded Copa America under way on Thursday with Lionel Messi looking to add a second continental title in what is almost certainly his final appearance in the tournament.

The 108-year-old competition is being held in the United States with the host nation among six teams from the CONCACAF region joining the 10 South American nations looking for a place in the July 14 final in Miami.

While Fifa will be looking closely at the organisation of the event, two years out from the World Cup which will be co-hosted by the USA, Canada and Mexico, the tournament’s rich history and prestige means it is much, much more than a ‘trial event’.

Argentina have won the Copa 15 times but only once, in 2021, during the Messi era and coach Lionel Scaloni has stuck largely with his World Cup-winning squad, with veterans Angel Di Maria and Nicolas Otamendi likely taking their final bow in a major tournament.

Whether this is Messi’s goodbye to elite international football remains to be seen – the eight-times Ballon d’Or winner, now playing in Major League Soccer with Inter Miami, will turn 37 four days after Thursday’s opener in Atlanta against Canada and has yet to decide whether he will try to play in a record sixth World Cup.

“It’s great to have records and continue to achieve things but I won’t take part in a World Cup just to say I’ve done six,” Messi told ESPN last week.

“If I feel good and everything is in place for me to be there, fine, but I won’t go just to go. It’s very difficult to imagine what can happen because it’s still two years away. I don’t need to commit right now to whether or not I’ll be there,” he added.

What is certain is that Messi, who has managed his workload to try to be in peak condition for the tournament, would relish the chance to win a third straight major tournament with his country after so many years of frustration with his national team.

After facing Canada, Argentina take on Chile in New Jersey before finishing their group A action against Peru in Miami but they know that tough opposition awaits in the knock-out stage with rivals Brazil and Uruguay the two expected challengers for the title.

Brazil have struggled in CONMEBOL qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup having won just two of their opening six games and they currently sit in sixth place in the standings having lost to Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina.

There are several familiar names missing from Dorival Junior’s Brazil squad with Casemiro, Gabriel Jesus and Thiago Silva left out while Richarlison and Neymar are both missing due to injury.

The pressure will be on the Real Madrid attacking pair of Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo to translate their club form into success for the Selecao while there is much excitement around the senior tournament debut of 17-year-old talent Endrick, who is set to join Real next month from Palmeiras.

Uruguay, also 15-times winners, have impressed under their 68-year-old Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa, who has brought his trademark high-energy style to the team and raised expectations with recent wins over Argentina and Brazil.

Liverpool forward Darwin Nunez will lead the line although Bielsa has the option of introducing veteran Luis Suarez from the bench.

Colombia head into the tournament without a loss in over two years and with Liverpool’s livewire winger Luis Diaz a constant threat and James Rodriguez enjoying a late career revival, Nestor Lorenzo’s team can’t be discounted.

The USA will hope that they can generate some sorely needed excitement after losing their way since a creditable run to the last-16 at the World Cup.

Coach Gregg Berhalter is under some pressure to show he can get his team, which relies on the smart wing play of Christian Pulisic, to compete with teams from outside of CONCACAF.

Mexico have guested frequently in the Copa in the past and reached the final in 1993 and 2001, but they look well below their usual level although they can, as always, count on huge support in the USA.

This is the second time the Copa America is being held in the USA, after the Centenary tournament in 2016, and while that is a break with tradition the presence of significant immigrant communities from all the competing nations, should ensure big crowds at the mostly NFL stadiums being used.

Source: eNCA

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