Monday, July 18, 2011
Tear up those betting slips
Sam Kelly, Argentina
If you had a speculative fiver on this semi-final line-up before the tournament started - or even on Saturday morning before the quarter-finals kicked off - then congratulations. A Copa America that's already been full of surprises sprung more on us over the weekend. Not one, not two, not three, but all four of the favourites to go through were eliminated, including both the holders and the hosts.
On Tuesday, Uruguay will play Peru; on Wednesday, Paraguay will take on Venezuela. There are two clear favourites in historical terms in those matches, so it's a given, the way this Copa has gone, that we're in for a Peru v Venezuela final on Sunday. But if we've learned anything in the last few days, it's not to look too far into the future. I was cautious about Argentina's status as favourites before the competition started, but still stated that I felt Argentina v Brazil was the most likely final. I could see strong challengers - probably Uruguay - putting one of them out, perhaps, but both of them exiting at the quarter-finals?
It's almost a reverse of the situation I experienced during the World Cup last year. Then, there were street parties in Buenos Aires one day when Brazil were eliminated by Netherlands, and a distinct turn in the mood the following day when Argentina were humiliated by Germany. This time, there was grieving at Argentina's exit, followed on Sunday night by a sense of relief all round that at least Brazil wouldn't win.
That means Brazil won't become only the second team ever to win three consecutive Copa America titles, after Argentina's run in the 1940s. There's still a chance Uruguay could claim it, to keep up the remarkable stat that they and Argentina are the only two countries to have ever won the Copa when it's been played here. But this Copa belongs, well and truly, to the less-heralded nations.
Argentina's 1-1 draw with Uruguay, which was followed by an agonising 5-4 defeat in the penalty shootout, was probably the best match of the tournament to that point. Argentina were good in attack, if wasteful, but woeful defending set-pieces and high balls. Uruguay, of course, took advantage, and fought through to penalties in spite of playing most of the match a man down (Diego Perez arguably shouldn't even have been on the pitch by the time he opened the scoring in the fifth minute, but was sent off anyway before half-time).
Peru seriously rode their luck against Colombia earlier on Saturday, seeing their opponents miss a host of chances including a penalty screwed wide by an uncharacteristically meek Radamel Falcao. All the same, when Peru's chances arrived they took them with aplomb, both substitute Carlos Lobaton and Juan Manuel Vargas smashing their shots in to leave Colombia, who'd been heavily touted as dark horses prior to the competition, licking their wounds.
Brazil's goalless draw with Paraguay was a largely dull match on - I warned you I'd keep saying this - a woeful pitch in La Plata, and when the penalty shootout arrived we still didn't see the ball hit the net with any regularity: Paraguay won 2-0 after four the worst penalties I've ever seen from Brazil. It's a good thing for me that the Brazilian press pack took it so stoically because, although surrounded by Brazilian journalists on all sides in the stands, I found it impossible not to let slip an astonished laugh when Elano - introduced in extra-time specifically to take the first kick - strolled up and coolly whacked it several feet over the crossbar.
Paraguay thus advance to the semis without having won a match, whilst Brazil go out without having lost. Paraguay relied at times on luck - and a couple of great saves from goalkeeper Justo Villar - to get through, defending in numbers rather than strategically. It was very different from how their semi-final opponents Venezuela had got their own 0-0 draw with Brazil in the same stadium in the group stage.
And I'll move on to Venezuela now, because they're the other underdog to battle through, in a match that may well have superseded Argentina v Uruguay as the most enjoyable in the tournament to date. Chile v Venezuela was a brilliant game. I actually missed it live - I was on the coach back from La Plata - but type this at 5.45am having just caught it replayed on TV. I normally can't focus on games I already know the score of, but this was an exception.
Chile attacked and attacked, but Venezuela countered dangerously, took the lead just before half-time, and weathered a storm in the second half; Chile then hit the crossbar twice before Humberto Suazo got an equaliser in the 70th minute. Gabriel Cichero, though, got the winner for Venezuela, who kept pushing for a third even as Chile tried to flood forwards themselves. It was tremendously entertaining, but one suspects Tomas Rincon's suspension will hurt them. He was sent off for a daft foul at the very end, and the Hamburg man has been perhaps my player of the tournament since impressing so much against Brazil. He's part of a good team, though, which will give Venezuela hope.
For the teams departing the tournament, there is not such cause for optimism, and heads will roll in some quarters. There are already rumblings about Mano Menezes' future as Brazil manager, and although no decision seems imminent in Argentina over Sergio Batista, he'll come under more pressure than ever. Banners at Brazil v Paraguay from locals appealed for Diego Maradona to be brought back as manager - a depressing enough thought on its own.
Those pressures are for articles after the Copa, though. Plenty of journalists here are getting annoyed that they won't see Argentina v Brazil in the final. I'll admit I'd have loved that, but I'm enjoying it this way just as well. It's hard not to love a victorious underdog, and this weekend brought us four of them. I can't wait for the semis.
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