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Copa America Group B preview: Neymar-less Brazil still favored

Without veterans Neymar, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Marcelo, Brazil eyes top billing in its Copa America group.

Focused on finally adding an Olympic gold medal to its packed trophy case and becoming only the second country to win the World Cup, Confederations Cup, Olympic, U-20, U-17 and continental title sextuple, Brazil has undercut its Copa prospects—and arguably the entire tournament—by leaving Neymar behind.

Barcelona didn’t want the talismanic forward spending his entire summer with the Seleção, so the Centenario was sacrificed. While Brazil remains the Group B favorite and boasts a typically skillful midfield that’s among the best in the tournament, the lack of obvious goal-scoring punch could mean trouble in the knockout rounds.

Ecuador is the heavy favorite to join Brazil in the quarterfinals. One of only two CONMEBOL nations that’s never won the Copa, Ecuador is a dangerous team that’s making its presence felt in the region’s World Cup qualifying competition. It won in Buenos Aires in October, beat Uruguay the following month and now is tied for first place with La Celeste. In Antonio Valencia, Michael Arroyo and Jefferson Montero, Ecuador has some of the most dangerous and dynamic midfielders in the competition. But the absence of injured striker Felipe Caicedo will hurt.

Not much is expected from Peru and Haiti, the Copa’s surprise qualifier. Peru is bringing a young team absent the likes of Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfán, while Haiti—which features six U.S.-based players including five from the NASL—will hope to earn some respect and make its mark as the tournament’s underdog.

ROSTERS: Brazil | Ecuador | Peru | Haiti

Match schedule (all times Eastern)

June 4: Haiti-Peru at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, 7:30 p.m.

June 4: Brazil-Ecuador at Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, 10 p.m. 

June 8: Brazil-Haiti at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, 7:30 p.m.

June 8: Ecuador-Peru at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, 10 p.m.

June 12: Ecuador-Haiti at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, 6:30 p.m.

June 12: Brazil-Peru at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, 8:30 p.m.

Five players to watch

Willian, Brazil: Stung by the absence of Neymar and the injured Douglas Costa, Brazil will rely even more heavily on Willian, 27, the skillful midfielder who was Chelsea's player of the season in 2015-16. Willian has six international goals and will be Brazil's primary attacking threat.

Paolo Guerrero, Peru: The responsibility to score will fall on the shoulders of the 32-year-old target forward from Flamengo (and formerly Bayern Munich), who notched a hat trick in the each of the past two Copa América tournaments.

Hulk, Brazil: One of the scapegoats for Brazil’s horrifying World Cup collapse, the burly Zenit Saint Petersburg forward has returned under coach Dunga and will have to find his finishing touch, or at least occupy defenders, in Neymar’s absence.

Johnny Placide, Haiti: The France-born goalkeeper spent the past season in Ligue 1 with Stade de Reims and was outstanding at last year’s Gold Cup. His experience and leadership will be massive for a team that can’t afford to be awestruck.

Antonio Valencia, Ecuador: Fears that the 30-year-old winger may have lost a step were put to rest upon his March return to the Manchester United lineup. As a right back he helped the Red Devils win the FA Cup and will be expected to maintain his form further up the field with Ecuador.

Surprise potential

Altidore donates for Copa America matches to be shown in Haiti

Haiti proved to be a handful at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Sturdy and strong on the counter, Les Grenadiers rode the opportunistic finishing of striker Duckens Nazon to the quarterfinals, where they outplayed Jamaica for significant stretches. If Haiti can find the net again—it’s struggled to do so in World Cup qualifying—and gain some confidence with an early win over Peru, it'll be a story to follow.

Two picked to advance

Brazil, Ecuador