Monday, 18 July 2011

Copa América quarter-finals - the favourites fall

The favourites went tumbling out of the Copa America at the quater-final stage in a dramatic weekend that fully justified CONMEBOL's decision to adopt extra-time as three of the games went into the extra half hour. With some unexpected sides in the last four, the competition is open wider than the mouth of the Amazon. Let's have a look and see how it panned out.

Colombia 0-2 Peru

No Pizarro, no Farfán, no chance. Wasn't that the script for Peru? Nobody seems to have told them that, though they were indebted here to Radamel Falcao whose shanked penalty saw the sides go to 90 minutes goalless. Once there, a hopeful punt into the box was flapped at by Luis Enrique Martinez who came flying out of his net and wiped out a team-mate in the act of palming the ball to Carlos Lobaton. He didn't need a second invitation and lashed it past the prone goalkeeper and through a crowd scene to give Peru a surprise lead. A poor clearance from Martinez in the second period of extra time was swooped on by Paolo Guerrero. He and Juan Vargas were two-o two against what remained of the defence and Guerrero is too good in those situ. He beat one man and drew in the other before squaring to Vargas who smashed it in from the edge of the box.

Argentina 1-1 Uruguay (Uruguay win 5-4 on penalties)

Early goals in Santa Fe gave everybody hope that we were in for a thriller as two of the pre-tournament favourites went head-to-head. The Argentine defence allowed Diego Perez to sneak in unnoticed as a long-range free-kick was floated into the box. The knock-down found Perez at the back post and he nudged it over the line from about a foot. The defence continued to take chances, but Argentina also looked sharp on the counter and that's how they got back level. A piece of brilliance from Lionel Messi set up Gonzalo Higuain for a flick header. But despite all that attacking talent, neither side could find another goal for the remaining 77 minutes of normal time or the additional half hour and to penalties it went even though both sides had the ball in the net once.
Messi stroked his home to put Argentina ahead in the tie for the first time; Diego Forlan responded in kind. Nicolas Burdisso and Luis Suarez exchanged successful kicks before Carlos Tevez put his too near Fernando Muslera who saved. Andrés Scotti made Muslera's heroics count and heaped the pressure on the tournament hosts. Muslera very nearly saved Javier Pastore's effort, but it squirmed in under his body. Mauricio Victorino converted his leaving one more penalty to send Uruguay through even though Higuain blasted his in off the bar. Muslera couldn't watch as Martin Caceres lined it up, but you wouldn't know the pressure was on as he hit it perfectly, right into the top corner. No chance for Sergio Romero and Uruguay were through.

Brazil 0-0 Paraguay (Paraguay win 2-0 on penalties)

Let's be clear about one thing: penalties are not a lottery. There is an art to the science of converting spot kicks. Look at the Germans in Euro 96. When they beat England in the semi-finals, each penalty struck the inside of the side netting, beyond the reach of any keeper whether he guesses right or not. Brazil, it seems, have much to learn about it.
Before all that came a tense and at times fractious game, livened by a 22-man rumble which ended with Lucas Leiva and Antolín Alcaraz getting their marching orders. Brazil hammered on the Paraguayan goal throughout, but found Justo Villar in inspired form while at the other end, the Paraguayan front-line - not exactly blessed with blistering pace - made the Brazilian rearguard look slow and ponderous.
With extra time winding down and penalties inevitable, Mano Menezes sent on Elano, his number one penalty taker and it was he who stepped up for the first kick which he then proceeded to launch into a near-earth orbit. Paraguay's first was also missed, Edgar Barreto dragging it wide, and Brazil's second, from Thiago Silva, was saved by Villar before Marcelo Estigarribia finally put one away, blazed down the middle. Another miss for Brazil, André Santos taking the Elano method, was followed by a second for Paraguay from Cristian Riveros leaving Fred needing to score to keep Brazil in it. He shanked it well wide, nearer corner flag than goal, and Paraguay were through. An awful, awful penalty from Fred to cap a dreadful attempt at a shoot-out as the holders followed the hosts out of the competition.

Chile 1-2 Venezuela

Finally, a game settled in 90 minutes, but again the favourites bow out. Having seen Argentina and Brazil go out, Chile could have been forgiven for thinking they could kick on and win this thing, but Venezuela have been improving steadily under everybody's radar. Half an hour in, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo got across the defence to flick a header inside the near post from a set piece, but when the prolific Humberto Suazo spun on a dime and lashed in a shot into the roof of the net, it was still Chile that looked most likely. Ten minutes from time, though, and another set piece caused panic in the Chilean defence and worked it's way through to goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who spilled it at the feet of Gabriel Cíchero.

So the semi-finals have a refreshing, if unusual look to them.

It's Peru v Uruguay on Wednesday (1:45am BST) in La Plata and it's Paraguay v Venezuela 24 hours later in Mendoza. Place your bets and prepare to lose your shirt.

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