Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 19 Jun 2024

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A festival of football is about to kick off in the United States, as the Copa America sparks into action.

Argentina, the reigning champions, get the ball rolling when they face Canada in the opening Group A match, and Lionel Messi will be the main man as ever for La Albiceleste.

Messi was the joint-leading scorer at the 2021 Copa America, netting four goals to lead the standings alongside Colombia’s Luis Diaz.

The Barcelona great is expected to be right up there again when it comes to the 2024 Copa America Golden Boot race, and here, we dive into the main candidates for that award.

Lionel Messi

Not only did Messi finish as joint-top scorer at the 2021 Copa, he was also the leading assister and then, 18 months later, he went on to lead Argentina to World Cup glory, scoring seven goals in the process, from 6.6 expected goals – only Kylian Mbappe (eight) netted more times in Qatar.

As soon as he features for Argentina at this tournament, Messi will become the Copa America’s all-time record holder for appearances – he is tied with Chile great Sergio Livingstone on 34, as it stands.

Messi has scored 13 Copa America goals, which puts him joint-seventh on the all-time list, alongside fellow Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta. If he is able to replicate his four goals from the 2021 edition, then Messi will join Norberto Mendez and Zizinho at the top of the all-time charts – that is unless Peru’s Paolo Guerrero and/or Chile’s Eduardo Vargas were to net at least four times each to set a new record.

Since the start of the 2011 Copa, Messi has had 102 shots – more than any other player. Surprisingly, his conversion rate stands at just 10.78 per cent, which stands as the second-lowest out of any player to have netted at least five goals in the competition in that time.

But there can be no doubting Messi’s genius, and the little magician is entering what will surely be his final Copa in fine form – he has scored 12 goals in MLS for Inter Miami this season, outperforming his 8.3 xG and averaging a goal every 86 minutes.

Argentina are the Opta supercomputer’s favourites to win the Copa, and group matches against Canada, Chile and Peru provide Messi with a favourable jumping off point to win the Golden Boot again.

Vinicius Junior

Fresh from winning the Champions League with Real Madrid (and scoring in the final – again), Vinicius heads into the Copa America as Brazil’s talisman.

With Neymar absent through injury, the onus will fall on the winger to provide the creative spark and clinical edge to drag what looks like a more dogged, workmanlike squad through to the latter stages – Brazil are, according to our model, second favourites behind Argentina, with a 23 per cent win probability.

If the Selecao are to challenge the holders, then they need Vinicius in top form.

While he played as a split-striker for Madrid this season as Carlo Ancelotti found a way to get the best out of Jude Bellingham, Vinicius is more likely to play wide left for his country, though his cutting runs from out-to-in will make him a constant threat, as long as the likes of Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta can pick him out.

Vinicius netted 24 times for Los Blancos in 2023-24, and attempted 286 dribbles – 10 more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues across all competitions. He averaged 8.4 take-on attempts per 90, a tally bettered by only Jeremy Doku, while Vinicius also boasts a dribble completion rate of 3.3 per 90.

He is yet to score at the Copa America, however. That being said, he did not make a single start in 2021, with all four of his appearances coming as a substitute, having only one shot and completing only one of his seven dribbles. But such has been his stellar form under Ancelotti in the intervening three years, there is no doubting he is now Brazil’s main man.

Brazil face Costa Rica, Paraguay and in-form Colombia in Group D, but none of those defences should strike fear into Vinicius.

Luis Diaz

Diaz enjoyed a superb campaign three years ago, scoring two absolute screamers – one came in the group stage, an overhead kick against Brazil, while the other came in the third-place play-off as Colombia beat Peru; it was a stunner from outside the area, with the then-Porto winger lashing into the top-right corner after skipping in from the flank and taking on several defenders.

Indeed, the quality of Diaz’s finishes are shown by his xG in 2021, which was just 1.0. And Diaz’s excellent shooting at that edition is further evidenced by his expected goals on target (xGoT) figure of 2.2.

Diaz had only 10 shots, 18 fewer than Messi, yet boasted a hugely impressive 40 per cent shot conversion rate. Only Messi (57) and Neymar (77), meanwhile, attempted more dribbles than Diaz (43) at the 2021 edition, while it was just that superstar duo that completed more dribbles, too (Neymar 35, Messi 34, Diaz 26).

His performances at that tournament piqued the interest of Premier League sides, and Diaz subsequently moved to Liverpool in January 2022. So while he will not be quite the unknown quantity that he was three years ago, if he is at his best, he will still be hugely difficult to stop – especially with James Rodriguez pulling the strings behind him.

Darwin Nunez

Bookending this list of the top Golden Boot contenders is Uruguay’s Darwin Nunez. The Liverpool striker has been superb under Marcelo Bielsa, and looks to be El Loco’s main attacker, even with Luis Suarez in the squad.

Nunez scored 11 Premier League goals for the Reds in 2023-24, but underperformed his xG (16.4) by 5.4. While he was unfortunate in a sense – he hit the woodwork on nine occasions, four more times than any other player – he was also erratic in his finishing, with his xGoT dropping to 15.5. Nunez also missed 14 big chances, which ranked behind only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (34).

The 24-year-old may never be ultra-clinical, (he had a shot conversion rate of 10.2 per cent in the Premier League in the season just gone) but his pace, tenacity and work rate make him the ideal Bielsa folly up top.

Nunez scored a hat-trick in Uruguay’s 4-0 demolition of Mexico earlier in June, while he is the leading goalscorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, with five to his name.

Uruguay head into the tournament in fine fettle, and Bielsa will always be willing to risk it all in attack – meaning plenty of opportunities should come Nunez’s way.

They are in a group with the hosts USA, Panama and Bolivia – the worst-ranked team in the tournament – so Nunez should be aiming to make a dent early on.

Other contenders

Lautaro Martinez

Martinez has had an outstanding season for Inter, who he led to the Scudetto while finishing as top scorer in Serie A, scoring 24 goals in 33 appearances, and comfortably outperforming his 17.6 xG.

However, he has not netted for Argentina in 2026 World Cup qualifying, and is not a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni, so chances may not be of a premium for him. That being said, he did score twice in Argentina’s 4-1 win over Guatemala on Friday.

Endrick

Boy wonder Endrick, who will link up with Vinicius, Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season, has scored three goals for Brazil in his last three appearances.

He scored those in successive matches, though he was unable to become the first Selecao player since Neymar in 2021 to net in four consecutive games as Dorival Junior’s team drew 1-1 with the USA in a warm-up match. At 17, Endrick looks like a superstar in the making, and he could be an outside bet for the Golden Boot.

Luis Suarez

Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer Suarez is bang in form heading into this tournament. The veteran has 68 goals in 138 caps and has netted 12 times already for Miami in MLS this season, averaging a goal every 96 minutes.

Of players to score at least five times in MLS in 2024, Suarez has the fourth-highest shot conversion rate, too (33.33 per cent). Uruguay are ranked as the third-favourites by the Opta supercomputer, so Suarez could have plenty of matches to add to his international goals tally.

Christian Pulisic

The USA cannot find much consistency under Gregg Berhalter, though they did draw 1-1 with Brazil in a friendly on June 13. If the hosts are to make a serious run, then they will need to channel through Pulisic.

While he is more likely to act as a creator, the attacker has proved he is more than capable of putting away chances. He scored 15 goals for Milan in 2023-24, making it the best goalscoring campaign of his career.

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