Copa America

Muslera moving beyond South Africa

Uruguay's weakness turned into a strength against Argentina.
SpecialtoFoxSoccer RUPERT FRYER
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Uruguay arrived at this year’s Copa America with a continuity and stability that few others in the competition could match. It took the field against Peru for its inaugural Group C match two weeks ago with no less than eight of the 11 players that faced Germany in its third place match at the World Cup one year ago.

Coach Oscar Tabarez had since attempted to add more creativity to the middle of the filed, eventually remedying the issue by asking Diego Forlan to drop a little deeper behind Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but the 64-year-old had one problem that just wouldn’t go away: his goalkeeper.

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Lazio’s Argentinian-born Fernando Muslera was first choice, but Tabarez was concerned over his tendency to make errors.

The 25-year-old had been blamed for the goal his side conceded against the Korea Republic in the World Cup round of 16 when he rushed from his goal-line to allow Lee Chung-Yong to head into an empty net. Questions were also asked of how a bouncing Sulley Muntari shot from 30 yards managed to beat him in the quarterfinals. And against Germany, he not only spilled a Bastian Schweinsteiger shot right into the path of Thomas Muller but flapped hopelessly at a Jerome Boateng cross to gift Marcell Jansen an equaliser.

Tabarez had a problem. “I have to see if I have better solutions,” he would admit before dropping Muslera in favour of Colo-Colo’s Juan Castillo for the March friendly with Estonia. A 2-0 defeat, thanks in no small part to a woeful display from Castillo, however, meant Tabarez would keep faith Muslera. And on Saturday night, that faith was rewarded with a stunning display from the Lazio stopper.

“Muslera is having a fantastic Copa America,” teammate Alvaro Pereira told reporters. “He had to deal with a lot criticism after the World Cup and he had a great match [tonight].” The night’s other hero, Martin Caceres, whose winning penalty kick secured Uruguay a semifinal slot, concurred.

Born in Buenos Aires to Norma and Hugo on the day Argentina knocked Uruguay out of the 1986 World Cup, Muslera insists he’s always known where he’s from: “I grew up in Uruguay so I am Uruguayan.” Hugo is adamant his son’s arrival more than made up for the disappointment of Pedro Pasculli’s only goal in Mexico that afternoon, but just in case, a quarter of a century later, young ‘Nando’ made it up to his father by earning La Celeste a place in the semifinal at Argentina’s expense.

In the first half he reacted well to block a Kun Aguero cross, but was given no chance with the power and accuracy of Gonzalo Higuain’s headed equaliser. In the second half, however, with Uruguay increasingly under pressure following Diego Perez’s dismissal, it was clear Muslera was going to be in for a busy night.

He had already held efforts from Lionel Messi and Angel di Maria before his first major stop of the night, reacting instinctively to throw up a strong wrist and deflect Higuain’s shot from 12 yards over the bar. The save of the match, however, came in the final minute of regulation time. Diving one way, Muslera stretched out a leg to stop Carlos Tevez’s deflected free-kick before springing to his feet to block Higuain’s follow up.

He was solid in extra time, too, holding everything, quick off his line, and kicking well. It was a far cry from the Muslera we saw in South Africa.

And right when he needed it most, he got the luck his performance deserved. Higuain’s shot had him beaten, but not his near post. Messi then slalomed through only to see his shot blocked; it got caught up inside a packed penalty area, bodies flying hither and thither, and floated calmly, safely, above the bedlam and nestled snug into Muslera’s grasp.

He then make the only save of the shootout, diving to his right to block Tevez’s clean strike. Later, he revealed that he had done his homework. “The day before the match saw images of the penalties that top Argentine players take for their clubs,” he told El Espectador. “I saw many, including some of Tevez. Maybe that helped.”

“I was not looking forward to penalties,” he would later reveal to Ovación. “I always suffer so much [during them].” He suffered so much, in fact, that he couldn’t bring himself to watch, preferring instead to kneel facing the fans. “All I could find were three [Uruguyan] fans with flag tucked in a corner among all Argentines… When I saw them celebrate, I celebrated.”

“It was one of the best matches of my career,” he added, “better than I could ever have imagined.” Better, too, than his coach could have.

Rupert Fryer is a freelance soccer journalist and co-founder of SouthAmericanFootball.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter at @Rupert_Fryer.

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