Sports Mole previews the opening match of the 2019 Copa America between host nation Brazil and Bolivia, including predictions, team news and head-to-head records.
The oldest international continental football tournament will begin its 46th edition in the early hours of Saturday morning when Copa America hosts Brazil take on Bolivia at the Estadio do Morumbi in Sao Paulo.
Brazil go into the tournament as favourites to lift the trophy on July 7, but Copa America glory has proved elusive for them in recent years and the pressure will be on to get off to a good start against Bolivia.
There is no pressure in football quite like being a Brazil international while your country is hosting a major tournament.
A nation with such a glorious footballing history is still most scarred by two major embarrassments on home soil – the Maracanazo in the 1950 World Cup final against Uruguay and their utter humiliation at the hands of Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals.
The five-time world champions have therefore never lifted the greatest prize of all when hosting the tournament, although their record as Copa America hosts is much better.
Indeed, on all four previous occasions that they have welcomed the rest of South America to their shores they have gone on to win the trophy – in 1919, 1922, 1949 and most recently in 1989.
Thirty years is a long time to wait for a major trophy on home soil, though, and the demand for Brazil to succeed this summer is immense considering they have not made it past the quarter-finals in the past three editions – having won four of the previous five tournaments before that.
The 2016 centenary edition of the Copa America saw Brazil fail to even get out of their group for the first time since 1987, and so the expectation for a good performance this time around is perhaps even greater than ever.
The hosts have been drawn alongside Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru in this year’s group stages – the latter of whom inflicted the costly defeat on them last time around – and it is a pool they will be confident of progressing from considering they are the top-ranked South American team in the world.
Results in the build-up to the tournament have been encouraging too; their final warm-up game saw them hammer Honduras 7-0, making it nine wins, zero defeats and eight clean sheets in their 10 outings since last summer’s World Cup quarter-final exit.
Interestingly, though, Brazil have only played twice on home soil since October 2017, and the loss of talisman Neymar cannot be overlooked either.
The former captain – who was stripped of the armband in the build-up to the tournament – has been ruled out of this summer’s Copa America after sustaining an ankle injury against Qatar earlier this month, leaving Tite without a player who has 60 international goals to his name. Brazil’s leading scorer in the squad is now Gabriel Jesus with 16.
Worried Brazil fans may think back to that World Cup semi-final against Germany when Neymar’s absence proved so costly, but a repeat of that is almost unthinkable this time around and anything other than a winning start this weekend would be a major shock.
Recent form: WWDWWW
Bolivia could not have been handed a tougher start to their Copa America campaign, having already gone into the tournament as the lowest-ranked team.
Sixty places separate the two sides in FIFA’s rankings, and Bolivia will know that any result against the hosts in the opening match would already exceed their expectations for this summer’s campaign.
The Copa America’s history is littered with the unexpected, though, including Bolivia themselves lifting the trophy in 1963 – although that did come on home soil, when their altitude advantage has a noticeable impact on visiting teams.
More recent history appears to be against La Verde, who go into the tournament without a win in their last seven outings and have only beaten Myanmar in their last 16 games across all competitions.
The beginning of that run actually saw them hold Brazil to a goalless draw in October 2017, although once again altitude came into play in that match and Bolivia must compete without their greatest advantage throughout this summer’s edition.
Eduardo Villegas‘s side have been beaten by the likes of Curacao and Iran within that streak, and they come into Saturday’s match having lost their last three outings without scoring a single goal.
Indeed, the only goals they have scored in their last six outings since October 2018 came in a draw with minnows Nicaragua, failing to net against UAE, Iraq, South Korea, Japan and France since then.
The prospect of them even scoring against such a watertight Brazilian defence – yet alone beating the hosts – looks bleak, then, and only once in the past seven editions of the Copa America have Bolivia made it past the first round.
On the flip side, though, if they do manage to pull off a shock against a Brazil team which must also compete against the expectations of a very demanding public then they will set themselves up well for the remainder of the group with matches against Peru and then Venezuela to come.
Recent form: DDDLLL
Neymar’s injury was a hammer blow for Brazil, but their strength in depth was showcased by the fact that they were able to call up Chelsea’s Willian in place of the Paris Saint-Germain star.
Willian is not expected to start this match, though, with Ajax’s David Neres and Everton’s Richarlison both getting on the scoresheet during the warm-up thrashing of Honduras.
Gabriel Jesus also netted twice in that game – making it three goals in two warm-up matches – and should therefore have done enough to start above Roberto Firmino up front.
The other Liverpool versus Manchester City battle looks like going the way of the Reds, though, with Alisson Becker expected to be chosen in goal ahead of Ederson.
Decisions must also be made at left-back, where Filipe Luis and Alex Sandro are competing for places, and in midfield, where Fernandinho, Casemiro and Arthur are the front-runners.
Philippe Coutinho is likely to shoulder most of the responsibility in Neymar’s absence, although he has experience around him in the form of Thiago Silva and new captain Dani Alves.
Bolivia, meanwhile, have brought a very inexperienced squad to Brazil, with 11 players having won nine caps or fewer for the national team.
Striker Marcelo Martins is the only player who plies his trade outside South or Central America, and the 31-year-old is likely to be Bolivia’s main hope as comfortably the leading appearance-maker (73) and scorer (17) in the squad.
Brazil possible starting lineup:
Alisson; Alves, Marquinhos, Silva, Luis; Arthur, Fernandinho; Richarlison, Coutinho, Neres; Jesus
Bolivia possible starting lineup:
Lampe; D Bejarano, Haquin, Jusino, M Bejarano; Castro, Galindo; Saavedra, Justiniano, Chumacero; Martins
Head To Head
Saturday’s match will be the 30th meeting between these two sides, with Bolivia having won just five of the previous 29 compared to 20 for Brazil.
The most recent clash may have ended goalless, but Brazil are unbeaten in their last three games against Bolivia having scored nine goals without reply in the process.
The last meeting on Brazilian soil saw the Selecao run out 5-0 winners, and Bolivia have only ever once avoided defeat away to Brazil – a 0-0 stalemate in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
We say: Brazil 3-0 Bolivia
Brazil should have more than enough to see off Bolivia, even without the injured Neymar. It is the kindest draw the hosts could have hoped for in their opening game, and the biggest obstacle between them and three points could be the pressure to perform.