Copa América 2015 draws to a close this weekend with hosts Chile and pre-tournament favourites Argentina desperate to end their barren runs in the competition when the neighbouring nations meet in the final in Santiago on Saturday night.
We’ve seen some supreme individual performances throughout this year’s Copa. Neymar inspired Brazil to a final minute victory over Peru, Argentina captain Lionel Messi came to life against Paraguay and Alexis Sánchez ran riot against Bolivia. The world’s most gifted have made their presence felt in Chile.
However, it’s not just the household names that made an impact on the South Pacific coastline. A number of relatively unknown players have also stood out and it’s time they received their deserved recognition.
Luis Advíncula – Defender – Peru
The marauding right-back has enjoyed a burgeoning few weeks on the international stage during this summer’s Copa América with a cluster of notable performances for Peru.
The Hoffenheim defender, who spent last season on loan at Portuguese side Vitória Setúbal, hasn’t looked out of place against South America’s best and has flourished under the tutelage and extra freedom handed to him by newly appointed head coach Ricardo Gareca.
The group stage match against Venezula was a particular highlight, as he dominated at both ends of the field with his strong frame and blistering pace enabling him to constantly outmuscle his marker and deliver dangerous crosses into the box. Against Copa finalists Chile he also showcased his fearsome competitiveness as he continually ran behind Miiko Albornoz (and second half replacement Eugenio Mena) and delivered the indefensible cross that forced Gary Medel’s own goal.
At just 25-years-old, and clearly on the periphery of his Bundesliga club’s first-team, Advíncula will surely have caught the eye of sides in search of a complete full-back with his temperament, comfort on the ball, decision making and ambition in the final third.
Miller Bolaños – Forward – Ecuador
Ecuador never found their rhythm in this year’s Copa as they became the second team eliminated from the competition following a bitterly disappointing 3-2 defeat to Bolivia in the second group game. However, their second striker Miller Bolaños proved he was capable of making the step up to international football with a string of good displays.
After harshly conceding a penalty to Arturo Vidal in the tournament’s opener, the forward recovered to score in back to back games to repay the faith shown in him by head coach Gustavo Quinteros. The pair know each other well from their time together at Ecuadorian champions Emelec, where Bolaños finished as the league’s second top marksman with 19 goals last season.
After a devastating first 45 minutes against Bolivia, the 25-year-old began to show his eye for goal as he peppered Verde keeper Romel Quiñónez, whom rightly won the Man of the Match award for his heroics. Bolaños did eventually make a breakthrough, however, striking a thunderous effort from 30-yards into the top corner.
In his country’s final appearance at the tournament, it was his turn to be named Man of the Match as he scored the opener from close range before turning provider, teeing up strike-partner Enner Valencia in a 2-1 win over fellow departees Mexico. Bolaños now has 4 goals in just 7 international appearances and can boast a strike rate of 29 in 56 for his club side. No wonder boss Quinteros says the future is bright for his adopted nation.
Bruno Valdez – Defender – Paraguay
Just two years ago Bruno Valdez was playing junior football for Club Sol de America in front of crowds of seven thousand but on Tuesday night he was taking the ball off the feet of Ángel Di Maria and Lionel Messi. Admittedly, that match ended in a crushing defeat for the 2011 beaten finalists but individually, this year’s Copa has been a breakthrough campaign for a player who was only given his international debut days before the start of the tournament.
Initially benched for La Albirroja’s group opener against Argentina, Valdez was brought in at right-back for their second game against Jamaica and did very well as he made more tackles and blocks than any of his fellow defenders nullifying the creative threat from the Reggae Boyz’s Jobi McAnuff.
Against Uruguay, Valdez was moved into his more familiar role of centre-half and produced a magnificent performance to keep quiet Edinson Cavani and repeatedly frustrate the PSG striker. He made some crucial interceptions and clearances from inside the area and duly maintained his position alongside Paolo Da Silva for the semi-final clash with Brazil.
At just 22-years-old, the Cerro Porteño player looks to be an accomplished defender and reader of the game already. Perhaps prone to an overly physical challenge, Valdez was lucky to escape with just two bookings in four games but following his Copa showing, he is now prime choice to be the long term replacement for 35-year-old Da Silva at the heart of Paraguay’s defence.
Christian Cueva – Midfielder – Peru
23-year old Christian Cueva has been one of the revelations at this year’s Copa América. The left winger, who plays his domestic football in Peru for Aliaza Lima, scored his first goal for his country in his team’s tournament opener against Brazil, capitalising on an error between David Luiz and Jefferson. His turn of speed, directness, ingenuity on the ball and confidence to take on defenders caused Venezuela a defensive headache in the second game before he terrorised Bolivia in the quarters, setting up Paolo Guerrero’s second strike.
Cueva’s speed puts him among the fastest we’ve seen in this year’s competition but it’s not just his acceleration that concerns opponents – he’s clever too. At just 5’ 6”, the years spent dodging late bullying challenges in the frenzied Peruvian division has forced Cueva to become reactive and alert. He now teases full-backs, tempting them to close him down before darting inside, or lingering on the ball a little longer than you’d expect, switching feet and bamboozling defenders.
His breathtaking pace has conjured obvious comparisons with England international Theo Walcott. However, Cueva can also deliver an accurate cross and is clearly an intelligent player, drifting off the left wing into space between the lines. His performances at this year’s tournament has resulted in two of the biggest teams in Chilean football to fight over his signature, with Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile both desperate to keep him in the narrow west coast of South America.
Jeison Murillo – Defender – Colombia
Colombia’s Jeison Murillo probably won’t ever forget his second match of the 2015 Copa América. After a disappointing defeat to Venezuela in game one, the Cali-born centre-back scored the winner against Brazil and was head-butted by Neymar after the final whistle. Quite the evening for a 23-year-old.
Murillo was in danger of missing out on a place in the tournament after picking up a month-long knee injury in April but he recovered just in time to convince manager José Pékerman to give him his chance.
Big and burly, the 23-year-old is a physical, commanding centre-half with an excellent aerial presence. He is a gifted, low risk tackler – which he showcased in Colombia’s clash with Peru – as Los Cafeteros became the only team to prevent Gareca’s men from scoring. He is also comfortable coming out of the defensive line, as he proved with an impressive seven interceptions against Dunga’s Seleção.
Whilst his £5.9m transfer fee to Inter Milan may raise some eyebrows following an inconsistent spell in La Liga with Granada, comparisons with former Inter defender Ivan Cordoba have become increasingly frequent with due reason.