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Forget Messi and Ronaldo: Piatek leads top leagues in goals

FC United
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 By Tim Vickery

Stakes are high in South American friendlies as players look to impress

Brazil's Rafael Cabral, Uruguay's Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Peru's Carlos Ascues all have the chance to stake their claim for a national team spot in the coming weeks.

As the Copa America (next June and July in Chile) draws nearer, the stakes rise for South America's national teams. For the moment, the teams are just playing friendlies, but the competitive matches are coming closer: the next set of World Cup qualifiers get going soon after the Copa.

In 2015 there is only one set of FIFA dates before the real stuff starts. Over the next few days, then, some interesting experiments will be carried out with coaches wanting to take a long, hard look at some of their up-and-coming players. Here are four to look out for:

Brazil

Brazil have not called up any domestically based players for the matches against Turkey and Austria, which means a change of goalkeeper for the Selecao -- Jefferson of Botafogo has played in all four post-World Cup games.

Opportunity knocks, then, for Rafael Cabral of Napoli, a keeper who, though only 24, is already making up for lost time. Rafael was set to be Brazil's keeper in the London Olympics of 2012. Outstanding with Santos in the Copa Libertadores win the previous year, he was one of the big hopes of the Olympic team.

It is even conceivable that had he enjoyed a good tournament, he could have been Brazil's first-choice keeper in the World Cup. Instead, he was injured in training on the eve of the Olympics -- not the first, nor the last, time he has suffered injury problems -- and the chance was gone.

Tall, well built, strong in one-on-one situations, these matches are his big opportunity to become Brazil's long-term No. 1.

Rafael Cabral has become Rafa Benitez's first-choice keeper at Napoli.

Bolivia

The arrival on the international scene of a 30-year-old midfielder would not normally be grounds for celebration, but Bolivia currently need to take their blessings wherever they can find them.

Last month they unearthed Martin Smedberg-Dalence, Swedish born and based -- he currently plays for IFK Goteburg, who represented the land of his birth at youth level more than a decade ago. But Smedberg-Dalence has a Bolivian father, opening up the late possibility of a senior international career.

He made a thoroughly satisfactory debut in last month's 2-2 draw away to Chile, helping set up Bolivia's second goal -- which, as it proved, was only seconds away from being the winner. Operating behind the striker in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 formation, Smedberg-Dalence showed an excellent range of passing that could help Bolivia in the future.

The coach for the Chile game was Mauricio Soria, who is still likely to get the job on a permanent basis. In the meantime, though, he has been caught up in political problems, so ex-Argentina international Nestor Clausen takes charge for next week's match against Venezuela. A likely switch to 4-3-3 might complicate things for Smedberg-Dalence, but at this stage of his career any chance to show what he can do at international level is surely a bonus.

At 30 years of age, IFK Goteburg's Martin Smedberg-Dalence has been given a fresh chance to impress at the international level.

Uruguay

One of the great successes of Uruguay's campaign in last year's Under-20 World Cup, Giorgian De Arrascaeta was so outstanding for club side Defensor in this year's Copa Libertadores that there was even a lobby to get him into the senior squad for Brazil 2014.

It did not happen, but the highly talented playmaker has since been eased into the squad, featuring in each of the past three friendlies -- and setting up the only goal of the game soon after coming on to make his debut against South Korea in September.

Now comes a magic moment in the life of a young Uruguayan player, the chance to make his home debut in the legendary Centenario stadium, where the sky blues host Costa Rica on Thursday (the following Tuesday they are away to Chile).

De Arrascaeta will hope to get the chance to show off his range of skills. He has an Iniesta-like ability to receive and give the ball on the turn, a capacity to play the killer pass and an all-around imaginative exuberance to his play -- attributes that make him important for a Uruguay team in the process of rebuilding.

Giorgian De Arrascaeta, right, impressed for Uruguay at the 2013 Under-20 World Cup.

Peru

Midfielder Carlos Ascues has been one bright spark for Peru as, after missing out on the past eight World Cups, they seek to build toward Russia 2018.

Given his debut against Panama in August, he has since scored three times in four matches -- which is not bad going for someone who played much of his early football at centre-back.

In 2011, Ascues -- who was born in Venezuela -- captained Peru's under-20 side from the heart of the defence. A giant, strapping figure, his strong forward busts were already a feature of his play. From midfield he has more freedom to rumble forward, as well as presenting a formidable physical barrier in front of the back four.

Already signed by Portuguese giants Benfica, Carlos Ascues has the talent to be one of Peru's premier players.

Picked up by Benfica but currently back on loan in Peru with San Martin, Ascues has been the best thing about the Peru side under coach Pablo Bengoechea -- with the proviso that, so far, the opposition has not always been the strongest.

The one recent setback was against tougher rivals, including a trip to Chile, which Peru lost 3-0, and where Ascues found it harder to impress. In the next few days Peru are away and then at home to the ever-competitive Paraguayans, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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