Saturday, July 23, 2011
Copa final illustrates overturned order
And so the end of the journey approaches. It's felt like a journey, this Copa America, in more ways than one. The fact that the final is the only match taking place in Buenos Aires has given Sunday's event in the Argentine capital the feeling of a destination to be reached at the end of a tournament which has taken in matches all over the northern part of this enormous country. It's also, at times, felt like a bit of a long slog in spectating terms.
It must be said that the tournament hasn't been a classic. There have been some great stories, but more unmemorable matches than seriously enjoyable ones. And in some ways, the finalists encapsulate that. Uruguay aren't the most freewheeling or entertaining of sides, but neither are they the dullest; they've surely been the best, even if they were perhaps a bit fortunate against Argentina in the quarter-final. The belief and understanding instilled by last year's run to the World Cup semi-finals has been brought to bear in superb fashion.
Paraguay, meanwhile, have reached the final without winning a match. Five matches, five goals scored, five goals conceded, and five draws. If there's ever been a more decidedly mediocre run to take a side to the final of a major championship, I'd love to hear about (though perhaps not watch) it. It's been the way of this tournament, though, that even the uneventful matches have had significance attached to them, and Paraguay themselves aren't without merit.
Such merit, in fact, that manager Gerardo Martino - who is Argentine - is one of the names closely linked with taking over Sergio Batista's job in charge of his homeland after the Copa. The 0-0 draw with Brazil in the quarter-final, which was followed by a 2-0 penalty shootout win, was at the time explained by the need to do what was necessary to get through against a side who looked stronger both historically and on paper. Another penalty shootout after another goalless match against Venezuela in the semi-final gave the lie to that, but Paraguay have, if nothing else, been a supremely balanced side.
They've perhaps been a tad unfortunate to get here without having won, as well. The semi-final was their second match against Venezuela in this Copa, and the first, in the group stage, had been considerably more thrilling; a game in which Venezuela took the lead before falling 3-1 down in the second half, only for the Vinotinto to score twice in stoppage time to scramble a 3-3 draw and deny Paraguay a win. There was an element of carelessness and inability to close the game out on Paraguay's part, of course, but it's hard not to sympathise a little with them.
It's Uruguay who'll surely start as favourites on Sunday though. In Luis Suarez they've had one of the form forwards of this championship, whilst an uncompromising defence and flexible midfield have also been big plus points. Such has been manager Oscar Washington Tabarez's tactical flexibility that even the relatively understated showing of Diego Forlan hasn't hurt Uruguay's chances. Walter Gargano has combined well with whoever's been picked in midfield with him, and the side as a whole have been aware of how to defend and able to do so en masse when required, while also managing to look accomplished at the other end of the pitch.
That last clause is the ultimate difference between the sides in terms of their set-up, because Paraguay aren't in fact a massively defensive side by nature. It's more an accident - or accidents - of circumstance that has led them to defend their way to draws against first Brazil and then Venezuela in the knockout rounds. An initially attack-minded side shipped five goals in the group stages and only scored the same number, with Lucas Barrios, always a lively runner up front, struggling to find the same goalscoring form he enjoys for club side Borussia Dortmund.
As a result, perhaps wary of the threat posed by Brazil's pace in attack, Martino opted for a more cautious midfield in the quarter-final. In that match Cristian Riveros, the deep-lying midfielder, had Enrique Vera alongside him, with Víctor Caceres pushing on a little further, but only cautiously so. Against Venezuela, Nestor Ortigoza was a more creative presence in the midfield, but tends to operate from deep, while what Paraguay lack at times going forward is a midfielder who can link with the attack. Will Marcelo Estigarribia be reintroduced to provide the 'out ball' the side often lacked in the semi-final?
Paraguay appear themselves to be aware that they need to step their game up if they're going to claim the trophy. Uruguay are far more focused than Brazil, and far more able than Venezuela, and will have the added motivation of a chance to win a record fifteenth Copa on the soil of their great rivals Argentina (incidentally, Argentina and Uruguay are the only nations ever to have won the Copa when it's been played here).
It's a tough ask for Paraguay to win, then. They were determined against Brazil but really rode their luck against Venezuela - their opponents hit the woodwork on numerous occasions and had a first half goal wrongly disallowed for a phantom offside - and they'll likely need more than another man-of-the-match performance from goalkeeper Justo Villar, who'll join Estudiantes de La Plata after the tournament.
So the Copa that was meant to be Argentina's to lose - with the chance to get one over on their fellow giants Brazil in the final - will end with their older rivals getting the opportunity to pull clear of their current joint-record of 14 titles. After two straight Argentina v Brazil finals (both won by Brazil), this year's will see a meeting of the two geopolitically much smaller, less-heralded nations sandwiched between those two behemoths. It's the final of two oft-overlooked countries, and thus a fitting climax to a tournament which has seen the old order overturned.