The prelude is over and the real business of the Copa América is about to get underway as the quarterfinals begin on Wednesday.
After eighteen games to remove four teams, another four will go in the next four. There are no second chances now. Chile were the best side in the group phase, while Argentina and Brazil struggled, Uruguay and Colombia scrapped, and Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru surpassed expectations.
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Those events serve as an indicator, nothing more. Neymar will carry the stain of his sending-off against Colombia for the rest of his career, but for everybody else, it’s in the next 10 days that the memories of Chile 2015 will be forged.
Chile scored more than twice as many goals as everybody else in the group phase and, in the 5-0 win over Bolivia, produced by far the most fluid attacking display any team has in the tournament. But there is no side less likely to be intimidated by the atmosphere in the Estadio Nacional than Uruguay, which has eliminated the host nation the last three times they crossed paths in the Copa America. It also put South Africa out of its own World Cup in 2010 and beat Brazil to win the World Cup in the Maracana in 1950. Spoiling parties is what Uruguay does best.
Uruguay also has a huge height advantage. It concerns Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli so much that he had his defenders practising jumping to win headers above a tape stretched seven feet above the ground in training this week. The two Chilean centre-backs, Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel stand 5’8” and 5’6”, respectively. At set-plays, when they’ll come up against two 6’ center-backs in Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, that disparity could be a real problem. Uruguay will, though, be without its regular left-back, Alvaro Pereira, who is suspended. With Martin Caceres injured, Oscar Washington Tabarez has announced that Jorge Fucile, who has played just 142 minutes of football this year after surgery on his thigh, will play instead.
Bolivia — Peru
Thursday, Estadio Municipal Germán Becker, Temuco
It may be the least glamorous of the quarterfinal ties, but there’s a fascination in it for all that. Neither side was fancied before the tournament, but both of them have found a defensive resolve to exceed those expectations – even if Bolivia lost that resolve at halftime in the second group game against Ecuador and conceded seven times in following 135 minutes. The question Bolivia must answer is whether that first half against Ecuador, when it scored three times in quick succession, was anything more than a freak occurrence. Marcelo Martins has led the line well, but his side needs to rediscover the solidity that meant it didn’t concede in the first 135 minutes it played.
Peru began the year without a manager and with a run of six defeats in its last eight matches against CONMEBOL opposition. The straggly-haired Argentinian Ricardo Gareca, though, has got them organised and has seen the two players he controversially recalled, Carlos Cueva and Joel Sanchez, adding a creative thrust that should give it the edge against Bolivia.
Argentina — Colombia
Friday, Estadio Sausalito, Viña del Mar
The good news for Argentina is that Carlos Sanchez, who negated Lionel Messi when the sides drew 0-0 in the group stage four years ago, is suspended. With Edwin Valencia injured and Abel Aguilar omitted from the squad with injury, there are major issues of personnel at the heart of the Colombian midfield. There are also tactical issues at the front end of the team, with Radamel Falcao, for so long the side’s totem, now seeming to slow it down with his post-injury sluggishness. Jose Pekerman made him captain before the tournament, seemingly as a gesture of faith, but it may be that he now needs to drop him. In the final group game against Peru, Colombia had far more attacking options once Jackson Martinez had replaced the 29-year-old.
Argentina’s forward line has been only marginally more effective, despite the extraordinary firepower at Gerardo Martino’s disposal. He has lamented the “fatigue” of many of his players. Lionel Messi has spoken of the “obligation” this team feels to end Argentina’s run of 22 years without a trophy, but this side seems to suffer the same issues as so many Argentina sides of the recent past: a glut of attacking potential, but very little rhythm or delivery. The right-back Pablo Zabaleta will also miss out through suspension.
Brazil — Paraguay
Saturday, Estadio Municipal de Concepción, Concepción
In Brazil’s victory over Venezuela, perhaps, there was a lesson about football’s constant demand for the new. With Neymar suspended, Dunga turned to Robinho. He is 31 now. He has been almost forgotten, a player written off for past brattishness, but he produced a performance of great maturity as, for a hour, Brazil dominated. That it ended up clinging on seemed the result of mental fragility, and that is what gives Paraguay hope.
This was said to be the weakest Paraguay side in years and, while it may seem scarcely credible that Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo are still leading the line, they remain a potent threat. Paraguay’s main strength remains its doughty defence, although it will be without the rotund presence of Nestor Ortigoza at the back of midfield after he pulled a muscle in his left buttock.