The quarterfinal phase of the controversial Copa America is now complete. Four teams remain standing as the games roll on at empty stadiums across the country. Argentina easily accounted for Ecuador 3-0, while Colombia needed penalties to beat Uruguay after a 0-0 draw in normal time.
ESPN looks back at the action from the oldest international tournament in the world.
A strange reunion for Messi
Hernan Galindez is a 34-year-old from Argentina who, over the course of this Copa America, has become Ecuador’s first choice goalkeeper. He is the same age and from the same place as Lionel Messi. Galindez was a striker in youth football, and proudly records that when he changed position, the first goal he conceded was scored by Messi.
The last goal he conceded was also scored by Messi — a stoppage time free kick that flew past him from the edge of the area and gave Saturday’s quarterfinal a 3-0 scoreline that is perhaps not a fair reflection of the game.
For the previous 92 minutes Messi had not managed to beat Galindez, though he did see one shot come back off the inside of the post. Even so, Messi had made the difference, taking the keeper out with two superb passes that set up the goals that decided an intriguing game.
Galindez was not the only Argentine that Argentina had to get past. There was also Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro, a calmly skillful organiser of counterattacking sides. Alfaro’s team forced Argentina to show many of their virtues — and managed to highlight some of their defects.
The chief virtue is the circuit of midfield passing, with Messi well integrated and combining well with both Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo De Paul, while behind them Leandro Paredes organises the first ball out of defence. Ecuador worked hard to interrupt the circuit, pressing in midfield and defending high — and so Argentina demonstrated that they could also be more direct, hitting long to centre-forward Lautaro Martinez or moving the ball quickly behind Alfaro’s defensive line. This was how the first goal came — Galindez had been drawn out to block a shot, and Messi played a wonderful diagonal pass to cut him out of the game and give De Paul the chance to shoot home.
Argentina, then, had got off to their customary fast start. But it was always likely that Ecuador’s pace on the break would cause them problems. Twice in the first half Enner Valencia came close to a goal, both times not getting quite enough contact on his header. Argentina have only conceded two goals in this tournament, but the centre of their defence still does not inspire total confidence — and there is also the problem that the team appear to run out of steam in the second half. Sensing this, Alfaro went for the jugular, making attacking substitutions at the interval and having the better of most of the second half. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni responded by stiffening central midfield with Guido Rodriguez and by introducing Angel Di Maria wide on the right, switching from 4-3-3 to a line of four behind Martinez and Messi.
It paid off, in large part because of Alfaro’s puzzling persistence with teenage centre-back Piero Hincapie, who is undoubtedly promising but equally clearly not yet ready for this level. Inside the last 10 minutes, with the game still very much in the balance, he was caught in possession by Di Maria, Messi played the right pass and Martinez swept home the clinching goal. And there was still time for a gorgeous diagonal ball from De Paul to set Di Maria behind Hincapie. The defender hauled him back and was sent off — and up stepped Messi to complete his strange reunion with Galindez.
In the long shadow of the No. 10
The last time Colombia and Uruguay met in a knockout game in Brazil was seven years ago, when Colombia were propelled to victory by an extraordinary solo goal from James Rodriguez.
The scorer is part of a mythical tradition — the old fashioned South American No. 10, the gifted, sometimes indulged individual who links midfield to attack.
Rodriguez is certainly not being indulged at the moment. Disastrous results last November appeared to have left some bad blood in the Colombian camp, and new coach Reinaldo Rueda was not convinced of Rodriguez’s fitness. So, much to the player’s consternation, he was been left out of the squad for the Copa America. Also absent is the wonderfully talented Juan Fernando Quintero, kept in China by quarantine restrictions. And Rueda clearly does not trust Edwin Cardona of Boca Juniors.
After a deeply disappointing defeat against Peru, Rueda appears to have concluded that Cardona is a luxury player, and left him out of the game against Brazil and Saturday’s meeting with Uruguay.
Colombia, then, had nothing resembling a No. 10 in their team — an astonishing development from the country of Carlos Valderrama. Instead, Rueda played two up top, plus two wingers, one of them an improvised striker, and two more destructive players in the middle. It was a clear declaration: Colombia would not, could not, elaborate in midfield. They would be direct, dealing in rapid transitions and trying to get Duvan Zapata behind the rival defence.
Uruguay, meanwhile, tried to walk the opposite way. Veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez has been tempted to extend his long stay in charge for a simple reason; the World Cup in Qatar is the big chance to have both the great strike pair of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, plus the young and promising midfielders Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur.
But how to link the two? In this tournament Tabarez has given extended opportunities to playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta, a player who has been around the squad for seven years without managing to nail down a place. Indeed, Tabarez moved quickly to drop De Arrascaeta after the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. The reason? It is not easy to fit the player into Uruguay’s 4-4-2 formation. Without express pace or physicality, he prefers to have the freedom to roam centrally.
For this game he was given what he wanted. The dynamism of Valverde covered the right side. The spirit of sacrifice of Cavani meant that he occasionally dropped left — allowing De Arrascaeta to wander behind the central striker.
It was not a failure, nor was it a success. There were moments when it threatened, when De Arrascaeta was involved in quick passing moves that threatened to unlock the rival defence. But it was more flickers than flames, and halfway through the second half Tabarez tried something else, withdrawing De Arrascaeta and introducing the more dynamic young Facundo Torres. The Colombian central midfield duo of Wilmar Barrios and Gustavo Cuellar, however, proved a wall too tough to breach.
And so Tabarez exits the game — and the competition — with his doubts not yet resolved. The match was a bit like a couple of heavyweight boxers loading up but unable to land the knockout blow, and after a goalless draw Colombia emerged from the penalty shootout. In Tuesday’s semifinal, Messi becomes the latest rival No. 10 that Barrios and Co. will seek to neutralise.
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