Day three of the Copa America saw the arrival of mighty Brazil; and as if that wasn’t enough, we were also given two matches in one evening with Paraguay and Ecuador following the Selecao’s Copa America bow against Venezuela. But the evening would end in anticlimax as both matches ended in stalemate, leaving South America asking wondering where all the goals went.
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Menezes’ main man goes missing
The inquest was under way in Brazil even before referee Raul Orozco blew his whistle to bring to an end a disappointing Copa debut for coach Mano Menezes. Globo declared it a “dog day afternoon,” after the first half saw a minor delay in play due to a stray dog making it onto the pitch. “Unfortunately, we were unable to get the goal, but that sometimes happens against defensive-minded opposition,” Menezes told a press conference. “We’ll analyze our problems, and we will correct them.”
Brazil had started well, with Robinho going close inside two minutes. Further opportunities fell to Neymar and Alexandre Pato in the opening stages, taking a combination of some fine defending and a couple of good blocks from goalkeeper Renny Vega to keep the game goalless. There had been a question as to whether Pato could operate as a lone front man in Menezes’ 4-2-3-1, but he led the line well, providing those breaking from deep with an outlet for interchange and showing some excellent movement to peel off his marker for longer diagonal passes.
Neymar was the standout performer in the first 45 minutes, but could only spark intermittently in the second as a lack of fluidity saw Brazil increasingly struggle to convert its possession into chances. Paulo Henrique Ganso was supposed to be the man to make Brazil’s attack tick – and he likely will as the tournament progresses – but he had a disappointing evening, the sublime accuracy with which he distributes the ball uncharacteristically deserting him. The introductions of substitutes Fred, Lucas Moura and Elano served only to highlight the panic engulfing the camp at the prospect of a goalless draw.
But for all the criticism that will come its way before its second match against Paraguay on Saturday, there were some positives for Brazil. Even without Ganso dictating the rhythm, Brazil did create chances. Pato went closest, smashing his shot off the bar after half an hour. Robinho, too, went close to breaking the deadlock, his finish beating Vega only for a diving Oswaldo Vizcarrondo to block the ball on the line. With Ganso missing, it was Neymar who dropped deep, turned and ran at Venezuela before slotting a delightful ball through to the Milan forward.
Credit must also go to Venezuela for a consummate collective performance. It rode its luck at times, but Cesar Farias’ team refused to be overawed, keeping compact, maintaining concentration and showing a commitment to the cause that inspired Farias to label his team as “gladiators;” adding that the draw meant his team would go down in Copa America history.
Caution the order of the day
Another goalless draw in the evening’s second match between Paraguay and Ecuador means Group B is left wide open after its first round of fixtures. The lack of creativity from central positions is becoming an increasing trend in the Copa, as is the sight of one team adopting a defensive, reactive style of play designed only to contain. The four matches of the tournament so far have produced just three goals.
Paraguay was – unfairly – criticized for an overly pragmatic approach to its World Cup campaign last year, but Gerardo Martino’s team was by far the more positive of the two sides Sunday. Aureliano Torres repeatedly showed his willingness to push up from left-back and with Nestor Ortigoza the only one of the four midfielders holding his position in the midfield, the front two of Lucas Barrios and Roque Santa Cruz had no shortage of support from deep. Newell’s Old Boys winger Marcelo Estigarribia was the standout performer, repeatedly beating his man and looking to provide crosses for his strikers. Edgar Barreto should have opened the scoring after just 12 minutes when Estigarribia tricked his way into space before coolly looking up to find him alone inside the box, but his shot was straight at Elizaga; Santa Cruz, too, should have given Paraguay the lead on the hour mark after more fine wing play from Estigarribia provided his team-mate a free header inside the box.
Barrios and Santa Cruz showed signs of forming a partnership in attack, but the chemistry doesn’t quite look to be there yet; while they stayed close and instinctively looked to one another, a lack of understanding too often saw good opportunities wasted. With time running out, both were withdrawn by Martino. The game was crying out for some creation, but the man most likely to offer it, Osvaldo Martinez, remained on the bench.
Ecuador, meanwhile, seemed to quickly settle into a counterattacking approach after being on the back foot for the first half an hour. The loss of Antonio Valencia was clearly a blow; the Manchester United winger picked up an early knock and hobbled on until half-time when he was replaced Michael Arroyo. With Valencia its only real attacking threat from midfield, Ecuador’s only notable chance came when Chucho Benitez set off on a run from the half way line, nutmegging Paulo Da Silva to find himself one-on-on with Justo Villar, but failed to make the most of the opportunity. Benitez’s striker partner Felipe Caicedo threatened only intermittently.
Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda said the lack of the goals in the tournament so far was indicative of the “worldwide trend” of defensive soccer, leaving South America hoping a few rebels decide to buck it.