With 20 group-stage games to eliminate just two sides from a 10-team tournament, the quarterfinal phase of the controversial Copa America begins on Friday.
The Copa has rolled on at empty stadiums in Brazil despite the coronavirus pandemic in the country and across the continent. This edition was moved to Brazil at the last minute following a spike in COVID-19 cases in Argentina and civil unrest in Colombia, the two planned co-hosts.
There is now a radical change of rhythm for the quarterfinals, with four games over two days. It’s heightened by the fact that there is no extra time in the last eight — games go straight to penalties if scores are level after 90 minutes. This is clearly a boost to the underdogs, who may also benefit from the poor state of some of the pitches being used.
There is also a north vs. south theme to this round, a relic of the original structure of a continental competition that was planned to be held in two countries. The continental colossus of Brazil could have been in either group, but they were placed in the north — and so they now take on “southern” side Chile in Friday’s glamorous matchup of the last two Copa champions.
Peru vs. Paraguay
When: Friday, 5 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT; Goiania
Form guide: Despite a win away to Ecuador in the last round of South America’s World Cup qualification, Peru still sit at the bottom of the table. In the Copa, despite collapsing to a timid 4-0 defeat to Brazil in their opening game, Peru then put together two wins and a draw to finish the group in second place.
Paraguay lie sixth in World Cup qualification. In the Copa they beat Bolivia and Chile — the 2-0 win over the latter has been their highlight so far — and went down to single-goal defeats to Argentina and Uruguay.
Players to watch: Peru’s key man is almost certainly coach Ricardo Gareca, who year after year finds a way to coax results out of the limited resources at his disposal. Italian-born striker Gianluca Lapadula has made a quick impact after opting to represent the land of his mother’s birth, leading the line well and forming a partnership with the dangerous Andre Carrillo.
Paraguay’s strength is more in collectivity than individual play, especially as star man Miguel Almiron is almost certainly out with a muscle injury. Angel Romero is a versatile striker with a happy knack of popping up to score, and Gustavo Gomez is the organiser of the defence.
How it will play out: Gareca’s Peru start from a base of 4-2-3-1, but the coach is working some clever tweaks. Playmaker Sergio Pena has the versatility to drop and help out the central midfield pair of Renato Tapia and Yosemir Yotun. And Pena can also drift right to form a 4-3-3, allowing Carrillo to roam infield, and for attacking midfielder Cristian Cueva to cut in from the left. The main idea, though, is for the team to stay compact with and without the ball, forming a team that is greater than the sum of their parts.
The plan for Paraguay coach Eduardo Berizzo is still unclear, some two-and-a-half years into his reign. He is a product of the Marcelo Bielsa school — he played under the Leeds United boss and was also his assistant when El Loco was in charge of Chile. But the ultra-attacking high-press Bielsa model is a strange fit for the Paraguayans, who have a tradition of deep defence. Berizzo has yet to work out this conundrum, at times wanting a dynamic midfield to impose themselves, at others sitting back and going on the counter.
He has lost both his speed merchants, with Almiron and Antonio Barreiro both injured. Talent is available — left-footed Oscar Romero or former New York Red Bulls player “Kaku” Gamarra could come in. At least the draw has been kind as after finishing third in their group, Paraguay are fortunate to be facing Peru.
Brazil vs. Chile
When: Friday, 8 p.m. ET, midnight GMT; Rio de Janeiro
Form guide: Brazil have looked head and shoulders above their South American rivals, with Tite rediscovering the kind of blend of his triumphant first 18 months as manager. They have six wins out of six in World Cup qualification, and only lost their 100% record in the Copa when they fielded a weakened side in the final group-stage game and drew with Ecuador. Full of threat and tight at the back, they dominated their group so much that they were the only team to finish with a positive goal difference.
Chile are finding it very hard to move on from the golden generation that won the Copa in 2015 and again in 2016, and even under new coach Martin Lasarte still rely on the many of the old stalwarts. They lie seventh in World Cup qualification, and were hardly convincing in the group phase of the Copa, recording one narrow win in their four matches.
Players to watch: Closing in on Pele’s record of 77 goals for the Selecao, Neymar (68 goals) is the key figure for Brazil, the star around whom Tite constructs his attack and his dreams of World Cup glory next year. Neymar’s importance was highlighted in his absence in the draw against Ecuador, and much the same applies to Casemiro, the midfield leader who only played the final half hour of that game. In defence, Marquinhos has matured into an excellent centre-back, quick and quietly efficient.
Chile hope to have Alexis Sanchez fit to make his tournament debut. If he can play it will be interesting to see if it’s at the expense of Ben Brereton, the Blackburn striker who added some much needed youth and energy during the group phase. Arturo Vidal remains the midfield powerhouse, and behind him Chile hope Erick Pulgar will be passed fit to protect the back four and set the moves in motion.
How it will play out: Tite’s Brazil have mainly operated in a 4-1-4-1, which can also be seen as a 4-3-3. More recently there has been an occasional tendency to switch to 4-4-2, using strikers as hard working wide midfielders and freeing Neymar to roam centrally and find space between the opposing defence and midfield.
Defensively, plenty of thought has been given to strengthening the left side, which Belgium exploited so successfully in the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup. In 10 competitive games, the side have conceded just four goals. They are concerned, though, by the state of the pitch in Rio’s Nilton Santos stadium — well below par for a major tournament, the poor quality of the pitch is clearly bad news for a team likely to spend most of the game on the front foot.
From a tactical point of view, the one game that Chile have won probably gave them most cause for confusion. They lost control of midfield in the 1-0 win over Bolivia, and were forced to withdraw Vidal to tighten things up. Keeping things tight will obviously be a priority on Saturday. They may repeat the 3-4-1-2 they used against Uruguay, defending with seven to free Vidal and the strikers. That would seem a logical option, though the 4-1-4-1 employed versus Paraguay is an alternative.
Whatever the formation, they will look to the lung power of Charles Aranguiz to close down in midfield, and the experience of Gary Medel to organise the defence.
Uruguay vs. Colombia
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. GMT; Goiania
Form guide: Uruguay are currently fourth in World Cup qualification, and overcame a minor crisis during the Copa. The opening game, a 1-0 loss to Argentina, was their fourth consecutive match without scoring, a very disappointing statistic from a squad with some firepower. They broke the run with a 1-1 draw against Chile, won their next two games and seem to be moving in the right direction.
Colombia are fifth in World Cup qualification, behind Uruguay on goal difference. They began the Copa with a tight win over Ecuador, confirming a bright start to the reign of new coach Reinaldo Rueda. Subsequent results, though, have not been impressive. The defeat to Brazil was controversial, while the loss to Peru and the draw with Venezuela were plain disappointing. They are simply not the same creative force in the absence of James Rodriguez.
Players to watch: Uruguay, of course, are spearheaded by the old attacking firm of Atletico Madrid’s Luis Suarez and Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani. The future, though, belongs to Real Madrid‘s Federico Valverde, the motor of the side with his lung power and range of passing from midfield.
Aside from James’ absence, Colombia will be missing another key player. Juan Cuadrado is suspended, and will be hard to replace. The Juventus man carries out a dual midfield role, tucking into the centre and supplying width on the right, as well as filling in at right-back when the team are chasing the game. His absence makes a tight game all the more likely, in which Colombia hope that Wilmar Barrios can be as effective as he was against Brazil in his defensive midfield role.
How it will play out: The presence of Suarez and Cavani is a blessing for Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, but one which also brings limitations. It has usually forced him into 4-4-2, a system that does not always bring out the best in his attacking midfielders. In the last game against Paraguay, Cavani played up front on his own, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Nicolas De La Cruz blossomed behind him. One possible solution, which Tabarez has flirted with in this tournament, is playing a back three, allowing an extra man in midfield and freeing a playmaker.
Rueda’s Colombia rarely stray from 4-4-2. He has a decision to take over playmaker Edwin Cardona, full of talent but a player for occasional moments rather than matches. Is he too much of a luxury for this game? He was not used against Brazil. He could function behind the striker in a 4-4-1-1, but this was not a conspicuous success against Peru. Can Atalanta dangerman Duvan Zapata win a physical battle against the slowing legs of Uruguay captain Diego Godin? At the same time, can Uruguay force the same lapses in the Colombia defence that helped them to a 3-0 away win in World Cup qualification last November? This looks to be a quarterfinal as evenly balanced as Peru-Paraguay but with more quality. It could be the highlight of the round, but also has the potential to grind to a stalemate and a penalty shoot out.
Argentina vs. Ecuador
When: Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, 1 a.m. GMT; Brasilia
Form guide: Argentina’s 1-1 draw with Chile in the Copa opener made it three draws in a row; just like in the recent World Cup qualifiers, Argentina had taken the lead, looked bright but were pushed back and forced to share the points. Since then, though, it has been all wins, usually with fast starts and early leads. They lie second in World Cup qualification and are looking like a better, more consistent team than at any time since the 2016 edition of the Copa.
Ecuador put together three fine wins late last year in World Cup qualification. But their form in June was not good, with two defeats in the qualifiers (they stay third in the table) followed by four games in the Copa without a win. Three draws were enough to get them into the quarterfinals. They have, though, looked good in flashes, and were close to their best in the 1-1 draw with Brazil.
Key players: It is impossible to look beyond Lionel Messi for Argentina. Now their most capped player, he is in superb form, and in the last two years he seems to be emotionally integrated into the side as never before, turning himself into a vocal leader. At the other end, Emiliano Martinez is shaping up as Argentina’s best keeper for ages, and Cristian Romero has quickly established himself as the first-choice centre-back.
Ecuador are sweating on the fitness of some of their key players — Jhegson Mendez and Moises Caicedo, who will need to fight to win the midfield battle, and senior striker Enner Valencia, whose power and intelligence might trouble the Argentina defence. There could be a role for the great hope Gonzalo Plata, an awesomely strong winger who cuts in from the right onto his left foot.
But the key man in possession for Ecuador could be little left-footed playmaker Angel Mena. The surprise star of the last year, he has been struggling for form of late. But his performance and goal against Brazil serve as evidence that he may have found his mojo at just the right time.
How it will play out: Since Argentina’s last defeat, two years ago to Brazil in the semifinals of the previous Copa, coach Lionel Scaloni has based his team on a 4-3-3, with Leandro Parades, Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso setting up a pleasing circuit of passing which is working well with Messi — who is also starting to build an understanding with centre forward Lautaro Martinez. There are options down the flanks — the likes of Angel Di Maria or Papu Gomez cutting in, and the capacity to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2.
Argentina are a possession-based side — though it is not always easy for them to maintain control of the game for the full 90 minutes. This, then, looks like the classic match-up of puncher vs. counter-puncher.
Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro is such a good fit for Ecuador precisely because he is proficient at organising counter-attacking teams. He must hope that his defensive unit can keep Argentina at bay for long enough to give his side a chance to stay in the game, and to launch their own breaks when space starts to open up. It is a big ask, Ecuador have gone six games without a win, so can they really trouble Argentina? Given that two of those games were against Brazil — a creditable defeat and a draw — then the chance exists.
Ecuador are certainly capable of causing Argentina’s defence some problems. But the strong probability is that come Saturday night, Messi will only be two games away from his first senior title in an Argentina shirt.
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