Tuesday, January 17, 2017

South American U20 Championship starts in Ecuador

Before the Copa Libertadores gets going with its new season next week, the focus shifts to the continent's youth national teams. South America's U20 sides will contest a new champion in Ecuador. Argentina has their work cut out for them as they try to defend the 2015 crown. 

The format is a little unusual, at least judging by European standards. There will not be any knockout rounds, instead a large group of six will determine the winner of the tournament. How do those six teams qualify for the final group? By reaching one of the first three spots in either group of five. 

Group A includes Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay. On the other side of the tournament, holders Argentina will face the likes of Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela in group B. While group A undoubtedly sounds like the stronger one on paper, challenges from the smaller sides can never be underestimated.

Brazil's striker Richarlison (Photo: mg.superesportes.com.br).
Brazil's squad does not look particularly overwhelming in terms of youth talent. Striker and Fluminense regular Richarlison will most likely be the most dangerous forward in yellow and green. He scored three Serie A goals so far, but will require help from his teammates. One to do that could be Sao Paulo's right-wing David Neres. He also appeared on the stage and collected first team action at the end of the year. Especially the midfield, like in Brazil's first team, lacks something. They will look towards players like Maycon (Corinthians), Allan (Hertha BSC) and Caio Henrique (Atlético Madrid) to make the difference. 

On to Chile, where all but one player still play in their home country. Jeisson Vargas is currently on loan at Argentina's Estudiantes. It is not exactly an easy place for a young player to break through, but in his limited playing time (119 minutes over four games), the offensive midfielder collected at least two assists. Chile hopes he can produce more of the same for his country in a right-wing position. Two other hopefuls include left-back Cristián Gutiérrez (Colo Colo) and right-back Francisco Sierralta (Palestino). 

Colombia's senior team has enjoyed continued success in recent years. The under 20 hopes to replicate that during the upcoming tournament. Defensive midfielder Kevin Balanta leads the lines and is the most experienced player at the same time. Under José Pekerman, Balanta even celebrated his senior debut as early as September 2015. The now 19-year old is a mainstay at Deportivo Cali and can usually be found on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. Up front, Julián Quiñones is supposed to score the goals. The striker plays for Mexican side Tigres.

Hosting the tournament, a lot of pressure will be on Ecuador. They can bring a really interesting team to the table, led by Bryan Cabezas. The left winger is under contract at Italian side Atalanta Bergamo, but still waits for his debut in the Serie A. Back in early 2016, Cabezas was shining bright on the South American stage, going all the way to the Copa Libertadores final with Independiente del Valle. Talking of that club: Five players of Ecuador's squad come from the runners-up, another five from Barcelona. Emelec's Joao Rojas can play anything offensively and looks to be another valuable weapon for Javier Rodríguez' team. Despite a few standouts, Ecuador's defense could be a little shaky against South America's heavyweights. 

Group A is completed by Paraguay, filled with players from the countries' powerhouses Olimpia and Cerro Porteño. The athlete best known in the squad is undoubtedly Blas Riveros. Nowadays in action for Swiss side Basel, Riveros came through the youth system of Olimpia as well. Lately, he managed to get regular first team playing time in Switzerland and even celebrated his Paraguayan first team debut last year. The left-back will be a key ingredient to Paraguay's success. Julio Villalba, bought by Borussia Mönchengladbach, will be leaned upon offensively. While the squad is generally not one of the better ones, they can rely on absolute teamwork and heart on the field. 

Argentina's midfielder Santiago Ascacíbar (Photo: generazioneditalenti.it).
Title holders Argentina are the heads of group B. Claudio Úbeda coaches a team that certainly has a lot of talent, but will maybe not stand out to the extent of the 2015 squad. Santiago Ascacíbar captains the team from a defensive midfield role, the same way the small 19-year old controls his club Estudiantes. He will be supported by his offensive-minded club colleague Lucas Rodríguez. This midfield gives Argentina a lot of familiarity and balance. Up front, Racing duo Braian Mansilla and Lautaro Martínez look to lead the charge. Both have collected some top tier action during the current season. Once again, Argentina has to be counted towards the title favourites. 

Bolivia brings a young squad to the tournament, with most of their players aged 18 or 19. Considering most of them are still playing in the youth leagues of their home country, this team is a bit of a mystery to me. Limberg Gutiérrez, from Nacional's U19 squad, at least has the famous name on his resume. His father Límberg played for all of Bolivia's big teams and won the league title twice. Bruno Miranda is set to produce some danger up front. He plays his club football for Universidad de Chile and was given his senior debut for Bolivia last May. It is hard to see them be anything more than safe points for the top sides.

Attacking South America's crown again is the plan for Peru. It is a rather ambitious one considering their lack of success in recent tournaments. Universitario de Deportes are responsible for the team's best players, whose skills can be mainly found in the attacking third. Raúl Tito has played just about every position for "La U", making him a highly valuable piece for Peru coach Fernando Nogara. Roberto Siucho is best suited for the left wing, but has a major problem. He is not particularly dangerous in front of the net, neither on the scoring nor on the assist sheet. Striker Adrián Ugarriza will also have to work on his efficiency for his country to have any chance in Ecuador. 

Finally, a more competitive team can be found in Uruguay. Despite senior coach Óscar Tabárez' reluctance to play any young players, Uruguay's youth squads continue to do well and produce new talent. After the Gastón Pereiro show during the 2015 edition, some of it will be on display again in Ecuador. The squad is very balanced and has decent players in all areas of the pitch. For example, the tournament's most valuable player (when it comes to market value) will wear the sky blue of Uruguay. Midfielder Rodrigo Betancour is currently under contract at Boca Juniors, but has produced interest of Europe's heavyweights such as Real Madrid or Juventus, that has a buying option. Up front, Atlético Madrid's Nicolás Schiappacasse is an exciting prospect, as is Cerro's Agustin Sant'Anna in the right-back position. Uruguay will not have much trouble getting out of the first group, success during the final round also depends on daily form.

This leaves us with the final team of the tournament, Venezuela. Now, even the first team has built mainly on youth the past years, leaving it inexperienced and at the bottom of South America's World Cup qualification group. However, it shows a change in the thought process inside the poor country and a promise for the future. Quite a few players have already enjoyed their senior debut and even played in said World Cup qualification, but came back now to play this U20 tournament. One of them is captain Yangel Herrera, regular for Atlético Venezuela. He controls the game and tempo of his own team in a central defensive midfield role that is well-suited for the 19-year old. Herrera can continue to progress in that role, as can Yeferson Soteldo on the right wing. Huachipato paid nearly €1.5 million for him during the winter break. Soteldo hopes to showcase some of the speed and skills that got him that pricetag in Ecuador. Having a good goalkeeper in Wuilker Fariñez on top should help Venezuela in their fight for a top-three spot tremendously. The Caracas FC man could be the difference maker in close games. 


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