Just as it did in 2007 when it hosted the Copa America, Venezuela will take centre stage in South America when the continent's U-20 Youth Championship kicks off on Monday. At stake are four places at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
The tournament will run until 18 February, with matches being staged in the cities of Maturin, Puerto La Cruz and Puerto Ordaz. Lining up in Group A are Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and the hosts, while Group B pits Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay together. The top three teams in each section will advance to a final six-team round-robin group, with the top four earning the right to face the world's best.
This is the 24th time the competition has been held. Nine-time winners Brazil head the honours table, followed by Uruguay with seven titles and Argentina with four, while Colombia have two wins and Paraguay one. Who will prevail this time? FIFA.com weighs up the candidates.
Group A: Argentina the team to beat
With six world titles to their name, Argentina always figure large among the favourites for this tournament. Although Franco Di Santo of Chelsea and Pablo Piatti of Almeria will be absent, coach Sergio Batista can count on Liverpool midfielder Emiliano Insua and a squad packed with players from the Argentinian top flight. "I'm not lying when I say we're here to win the championship, but the priority is qualifying for the World Cup," said Velez Sarsfield forward Jonathan Cristaldo.
There seems little to choose between their opponents in the section. Colombia, who missed out on Canada 2007 after two consecutive appearances in the finals, boast a side featuring many of the players that performed with distinction at the last FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea Republic, among them defender Ricardo Chara and striker Cristian Nazarith. Coached by former international Hector Chumpitaz, Peru are pursuing a similar policy of continuity. PSV starlet Reimond Manco is the one to watch, while Schalke 04 defender Carlos Zambrano is also set to impress.
Third in the very first continental championships in 1954, Venezuela have handed the coaching duties to national team manager Cesar Farias, who will be hoping to get the most out of the Europe-based trio of Rafael Acosta (Cagliari), Juanma (Tenerife) and Salomon Rondon (Las Palmas). Ten of Ecuador's 20-man squad won gold at the Pan-American Games two years ago, giving them grounds for optimism. Hoping to shine for them will be Israel Chango and Fidel Martinez of Cruzeiro.
Group B: Hard act for Brazil to follow
Alexandre Pato, Lucas and Tcho helped Brazil to the title two years ago, although coach Rogerio Moraes Lourenco, on duty for the first time in an official tournament, cannot call on quite the same quality of personnel this time. The Brazilians remain among the favourites, however, and the stars of an entirely home-based squad are midfielder Douglas Castro and front men Tales and Dentinho, who made vital contributions to Corinthians' return to the first division.
Chile, who finished third in Canada, are coached by former Colo Colo idol Ivo Basay. Gifted forward Francisco Pizarro has already had a taste of senior international action and with playmaker Marcos Medel also in their ranks, La Rojita are hopeful of clinching a place in the finals for the third time running. Uruguay were also in Canada in 2007 and have two objectives this time round: to qualify and win the continental crown for the first time since 1981. "I'm dreaming of the ultimate prize," said coach Diego Aguirre. "I'm not promising miracles, but I don't just want to go there to make up the numbers." Aguirre will be helped in his task by the presence of Tabare Viudez of AC Milan and Benfica's Jonathan Urretaviscaya.
In contrast, Paraguay missed out on qualification in their last two attempts and are anxious to end that run in Venezuela. Adrian Coria, assistant coach to national boss Gerardo Martino, is banking on the likes of Liverpool defender Ronald Huth and centre-forward Luis Paez to put their experience to good effect. Bolivia are going into the championships without much fanfare but are putting their hopes on 17-year-old midfielder Samuel Galindo and playmaker Diego Suarez, one year Galindo's junior.
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