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5 under-the-radar players who impressed in Copa America group stage

There are only eight matches left at the 2019 Copa America. Here, theScore looks back at the 18 games from the group stage and details the lesser-known names who’ve already adopted starring roles at the tournament.

Shoya Nakajima (Japan)

Pedro Vilela / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It was in Japan’s hands. The Samurai Blue was facing lowly Ecuador on Monday to round off its Group C slate but drew 1-1 in Belo Horizonte to generously usher Paraguay into the knockout rounds in its stead.

But Hajime Moriyasu’s young, inexperienced roster still entertained over its three matches, with Nakajima as its protagonist.

The Al-Duhail winger outshone Real Madrid new boy and compatriot Takefusa Kubo with three dazzling displays. He played with an artful freedom, daring to perform a pirouette to enter the box against Uruguay’s unforgiving backline and having the presence of mind to lift a shot over an out-of-position goalkeeper and defender against Ecuador.

The 24-year-old became the most expensive Japanese player ever when he moved from Portugal’s Portimonense to the Qatar Stars League for around €35 million in February. Following a tournament that showcased his extreme pace and remarkable agility, that transfer fee now looks like a fine deal.

Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

JUAN MABROMATA / AFP / Getty

There are few busier defensive midfielders than Barrios in world football, and right now, he’s probably Colombia’s best player.

Barrios almost single-handedly shut down Lionel Messi in Los Cafeteros’ 2-0 defeat of Argentina, and he did so without conceding a foul. He’s an elegant ball-winner and constantly intercepts play due to his tactical ingenuity. His passing isn’t usually the greatest, but he was still Colombia’s most accurate distributor in midfield during its first two matches.

After Colombia wrapped up the top spot in its quartet, wizened tactician Carlos Queiroz selected Barrios among the substitutes for the group-concluding bout with Paraguay, taking the opportunity to rest some of his better players.

Surprisingly, the 25-year-old Barrios only moved to a club competing in European football in February, but he will soon be snaffled up by a giant from one of the continent’s big five leagues if he’s similarly commanding for Zenit St. Petersburg in the 2019-20 Champions League term.

Darwin Machis (Venezuela)

LUIS ACOSTA / AFP / Getty

The defenders and the midfield industry of captain Tomas Rincon certainly deserve recognition after Venezuela conceded a single goal during its group matches against Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia. Goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez also justified some of the hype with absurd athleticism between the sticks.

But it’s the name atop Venezuela’s scoring chart who turned the most heads. Machis traveled to Brazil after notching eight goals across 17 starts during a half-season loan with Cadiz in the Spanish second tier, and the attacker’s double against Bolivia continued that fine spate of form.

His goals were, somewhat pleasingly, very different from one another. The first in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Bolivia was an excellent run behind teammate Salomon Rondon before nipping ahead of his unsuspecting marker for an emphatic header. The second was more typical of Machis, as he penetrated a channel down the left side before smacking a golazo with his right trotter from the edge of the 18-yard box.

Udinese, take note. Machis’ parent club scored 12 fewer goals than relegated Serie A side Empoli last season and should consider giving the 26-year-old a sustained run of first-team minutes.

Erick Pulgar (Chile)

Alexandre Schneider / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Pulgar is a modern deep-lying midfielder. Not only is he accomplished in tackles and interceptions (he leads his Chilean teammates in both categories), but he’s also proven himself adept at set pieces in club football.

Unlike most of his Chile teammates, Pulgar is not a fossil. He’s still 25 and has continued to improve his game with Bologna, scoring more goals during the 2018-19 Serie A season than in his previous three Italian campaigns combined.

In some ways, Pulgar is like a rawer version of Real Betis’ Javi Garcia – formerly of Benfica and Manchester City – except with more expansive passing. He even did an impression of Garcia’s deceptive excellence in the air during Chile’s curtain-raiser against Japan, leaping high to impressively head home Charles Aranguiz’s corner.

Everton Soares (Brazil)

MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL / AFP / Getty

Everton, lovingly nicknamed “Cebolinha” in Brazil due to his likeness to a popular cartoon character, is ensuring the Canarinho – and the tournament as a whole – don’t miss Neymar.

He’s already well-known to those with an eye on the South American game, but he’s off most fans’ radars when plying his trade with Gremio in Porto Alegre. However, following two goals and an assist in just over 130 minutes during the group phase, it probably won’t be long until he makes a move to Europe.

Everton needed only four minutes to score one of the goals of the tournament off the bench in Brazil’s opener against Bolivia and then contributed to the rout of Peru on Saturday with a sudden near-post effort from outside the area.

His unpredictability and willingness to take people on have secured Everton a reputation as a must-watch player in Brazil. Tite would be an unpopular man if he demotes the 23-year-old back to the bench for Thursday’s quarterfinal bout with Paraguay.

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