Lucas Paqueta becomes key player for Brazil at Copa America

AP , Tuesday 6 Jul 2021

Lucas Paqueta
Brazil's Lucas Paqueta controls the ball during their Conmebol 2021 Copa America football tournament semi-final match against Peru at the Nilton Santos Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 5, 2021. (AFP)

When Lucas Paqueta left the pitch in pain at the end of Brazil's 1-0 win over Peru at a Copa America semifinal on Monday, there was concern among teammates whether he would play in Saturday's final. Few at the start of the tournament would have thought that the 23-year-old would become such a key Brazilian player.

Midfielder Paqueta had a cut on his left leg, but Brazil's medical officials say he will be fit for the decider at the Maracana Stadium, the same arena where he first appeared as a Flamengo winger in 2016. Brazil's opponent in the final will be known on Tuesday when Argentina and Colombia meet.

Paqueta scored the winners against Chile and Peru in the knockout stage, played in five out of six matches and became a frontrunner to take a position that once belonged to Philippe Coutinho.

Still evolving as a passer and a finisher, Paqueta also seems to have established a partnership with Neymar _ on the pitch and in funny dances to celebrate the goals they score for Brazil.

``Paqueta is a great player, he is growing in every match for the national team. He had a great season at Lyon and he is showing he can be a very important player for us,'' Neymar said. ``I am happy for the match he played, he was great. It is always good to find great players at the Selecao.''

The Brazilian was first called up by Tite after the 2018 World Cup, when he was at Flamengo. The coach continued to bring him to the Selecao despite unconvincing performances for AC Milan. Last year, Paqueta moved to Lyon and had a good first season, with 10 goals and six assists in 34 matches.

The red card to Gabriel Jesus during the quarterfinals against Chile allowed Tite to start with Paqueta in the semifinal _ he had entered the previous game as a substitute.

One of Tite's assistants, former Brazil midfielder Cesar Sampaio, said recently that Paqueta has given ``positive surprises'' during his time at Copa America.

``We didn't know he could perform in some functions, and he is doing them very well,'' Sampaio said. ``This athlete can do his part, which is more in transitions and skills, but he also also contributes defensively. He is very productive.''

As a winger, Paqueta was also in Brazil's squad that won Copa America in 2019. But he only played for a few minutes in the quarterfinal against Paraguay.

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