The Copa comes alive at last
They've taken a while to arrive, but at long last the goals started coming in the Copa América as the group stages drew to a close. Argentina, on Monday, became the first side to score more than twice in a match as they finally changed system and started to look like a team. On Wednesday night in Group B, there were six goals in each of the matches, with holders Brazil winning at the third time of asking and just pipping traditional whipping boys Venezuela to the top spot in the group.
Even Group C, whose two games were once again played out binary - a 1-0 win each for Chile and Uruguay, over Peru and Mexico respectively - saw some drama, with Uruguay missing a hatful of great chances and Peru's Uruguayan manager Sergio Markarián exploding in the press conference after the match (not literally).
The tirade from Markarián - who's been manager at 16 clubs, some more than once, as well the national teams of both Paraguay and Peru in his 35-year managerial career - came after his side's loss to Chile. He had numerous positives - his side qualified in spite of the defeat - and started politely. "Chile are the best team so far in this Copa" was one of his pronouncements. Then he got stuck in. Upset at what he saw as an unjustified red card for Giancarlo Carmona, who'd been sent off along with Chile's Jean Beausejour, he claimed: "Things have to start getting fairer [for the teams from less powerful nations] in the refereeing."
He then decided to press home that he knew about unfair reffing, and practically yelled into the microphone: "I won a title [in Peru with Universitario] when everyone was against us. And mark my words, hey - when I say everyone was against us, I do mean everyone was against us." He then calmed himself and moved on to the next questions, adding: "Sorry. I talk too much sometimes." It was quite a remarkable sight.
For the hosts, a 3-0 win inspired by a brilliant second-half performance including two assists from Lionel Messi was just what the doctor ordered, even if it was 'only' against Costa Rica's Under-23 side. Gonzalo Higuaín had a dreadful evening in front of goal but, crucially, he gave the centre-backs something to concentrate on, thus pulling space open for Messi to operate in. Sergio Agüero's second goal, and Ángel Di María's effort that finished the scoring off, were both from Messi's passes. The mood has lifted and there's a real feeling of expectation looking to the knockout stage now. It's a feeling that's heightened by Tuesday's results, which mean Argentina will play their great rivals Uruguay in Santa Fe.
Uruguay's 1-0 win over Mexico was the second match in the tournament I've been to in the Estadio Único de La Plata, and I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention again the absolutely dreadful state of the pitch. It was evident on the TV, from what I've seen on replays, but up close it's even more obvious. Luis Suárez brought up a divot the size of a human head on turning with the ball near the corner flag, and when he took a shot a little later on a clod of earth came up along with the ball. Those were only two examples of how the pitch affected the game, and it looked even worse than it had for Brazil's 0-0 draw with Venezuela the previous week.
Uruguay themselves got a deserved win, though, albeit against a poor Mexico side, and given the all-round strength and well-balanced nature of their side, they'll be optimistic of overturning the hosts on Saturday. They've been slow through the group stage but so, frankly, has pretty much everyone bar Chile, who finished just ahead of them in winning Group C.
Probably the shock of the first stage, though - apart from the pitch in La Plata - are Venezuela. We all knew they'd come on leaps and bounds since the last Copa, but even though I said in my preview piece that this looked like being the most closely-contested Copa in ages, I don't think anyone would have predicted that Venezuela would finish level on points with Brazil in Group B, and only one goal behind on goal difference. I commented before on Tomás Rincón's performance at the base of Venezuela's midfield, but since that opening draw against Brazil, some of the Hamburg man's team-mates have also really stepped it up, not least Miku and Salomón Rondón up front, and Argentine-based César González - recently relegated with Gimnasia La Plata - who scored a sensational long-range goal to win the game against Ecuador 1-0.
Venezuela played their part in the most dramatic game of the tournament so far on Wednesday, first taking the lead before falling behind 3-1 to Paraguay. They were still two goals down going into stoppage time, but rallied astonishingly to eventually cling to a 3-3 draw, with a last-minute equaliser from Grenddy Perozo which was set up with a header from Renny Vega - the team's goalkeeper, who'd come forward for the corner.
Venezuela will be distinct second favourites against arguably the team of the tournament so far, Chile, who having won their group remain near the Chilean border in San Juan for the quarter-finals, and thus will have a virtual home game on Sunday. That's the only quarter-final featuring sides who are still yet to win the Copa: all the other six teams have won it, a stat belying the fact that it has genuinely been an incredibly even contest so far.
Next up, Colombia face Peru, Brazil take on Paraguay, and of course there's the big one, the 'Battle of the River Plate' - Argentina versus Uruguay. The Copa América has sparked into life. Soon, it could be raging like Markarián in a press conference.
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