Uruguay and Peru will battle to complete the line-up for the Copa America semi-finals on Saturday night, and the former are huge favorites after mounting a convincing campaign so far.
Peru backed into the knockout stages as they suffered a 5-0 thrashing against Brazil in the last group game, and the obvious expectation is that Luis Suarez and co will comfortably get the job done in Salvador de Bahia.
Can anything stop them? Let’s take a look with our pregame talking points.
Suarez and Cavani shining bright
It does not take a genius to pinpoint Uruguay’s greatest asset: the strike pairing of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani is perhaps the most consistently productive in international football, with the two veteran goalpoachers possessing an excellent mutual understanding and a complementary skill set which allows them to cause major problems for any defence.
The proven old duo have been in fine form so far in Brazil, both scoring twice during the group stages to propel their team into first place in Group C, showing their threat by combining for a noteworthy average of 10 shots on goal per game (5.7 for Suarez and 4.3 by Cavani).
Now they must be licking their lips at the prospect of taking on a porous Peru defence which looked hopelessly out of its depth in the 5-0 hammering by Brazil, and Suarez will have fond memories of facing Peru on the Copa America stage after netting both goals in a 2-0 win en route to the title in the 2011 semi-final. It would be foolish, surely, to bet against Suarez getting on the scoresheet again this weekend.
Cavani and Suárez have scored a combined 106 goals for Uruguay.— Warriors of Uruguay (@UruguayanHeroes) June 26, 2019
The hitmen from Salto are determined to fire Uruguay to their 16th Copa América title. pic.twitter.com/DVx2LTwtyy
Midfield conundrum for Tabarez
The places of Suarez and Cavani in attack are guaranteed, and the same kind of reliable continuity is provided at the other end of the field by the outstanding central defensive partnership of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, who have developed a telepathic understanding during their many years together at Atlético Madrid.
But there is a certain amount of doubt in midfield, where experienced coach Oscar Tabarez could be without Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira after a bout of illness. If the impressive youngster is unable to play, it would probably open the door for another rising star, Fede Valverde of Real Madrid, who delivered a bright performance in the closing group stage victory over Chile.
In fact, Valverde could be pushing for a start even if Torreira is able to start, with Nahitan Nandez doing little to catch the eye during the group stage. And with Juventus starlet Rodrigo Bentancur also forming part of the midfield, Tabarez has the luxury of being spoilt for choice as he looks to shape the starting eleven to fire Uruguay all the way to the title.
Can divided Peru replace Farfan?
Considering their leaky defence and the potent attack at Uruguay’s disposal, it looks highly unlikely that Peru will be able to defend their way to a goalless draw and a penalty shoot-out as Paraguay managed against Brazil on Thursday night.
Instead, Peru will have to score…but the question of who will do so is a tricky one following the withdrawal of star forward Jefferson Farfan, who has been ruled out of the remainder of the competition after suffering a knee injury in the mauling against Brazil.
Coach Ricardo Gareca will probably opt to pair veteran skipper Paolo Guerrero with Andre Carrillo despite rumours of a bust-up between the two – in the aftermath of the Brazil loss, audio emerged supposedly from a WhatsApp group with Guerrero lamenting the indiscipline of Carrillo, forcing the captain into making a hasty claim that morale is high and everyone is pulling together.
With a dodgy defence, internal divisions and their key forward missing, surely Peru will find Uruguay too hot to handle? Anything else would be a major surprise.
Lautaro Martinez and Gio Lo Celso were the scorers as Argentina held off the challenge of Venezuela, earning a 2-0 victory to set up a mouth-watering Copa America semi-final against hosts Brazil.
For once, La Albiceleste were able to triumph despite a low-key performance from Lionel Messi, with a strong all-round team performance proving too much for spirited but limited Venezuela.
Check out how all the players rated…
Armani 6: Didn’t always look convincing, especially when coming out to clear, but made a key save to deny Hernandez at 1-0.
Foyth 7: Faced a real test against the pace of Machis but stuck to his task with determination and ended up coming out on top.
Pezzella 7: Solid at the back and always a threat when he attacked set-pieces, twice coming close in the first half.
Otamendi 8: Made a succession of important defensive interventions inside his penalty area, enjoying his physical tussle with Rondon.
Tagliafico 6: Solid defensively but had little opportunity to get forward. Switched off to give Venezuela their biggest chance.
Acuna 7: Worked hard up and down the left wing, throwing himself into the task to epitomise his team’s no-nonsense approach.
Paredes 7: Sensible use of possession in the pivot role in midfield, and threw his body on the line to stifle Venezuela.
De Paul 7: Lined up on the right of midfield and really grew into the game, doing really well to help set up the second goal.
Messi 5: Very below par display, only really showing his quality from set-pieces, including the corner for the opening goal.
Aguero 7: Led the line with energy and determination, coming close with an early strike and playing a role in both goals.
Martinez 8: Bright and sharp demonstration of all-round forward play, covering plenty of ground and producing a slick finish for the first goal.
Di Maria 6: Surprisingly brought on for the excellent Martinez but justified his introduction with a hard-working showing.
Lo Celso 6: Came off the bench to replace Acuna in midfield and slotted home into an open net for the second goal minutes later.
Dybala 6: Given a brief run-out to relieve Aguero in the latter stages and played his part in running down the clock.
Farinez 4: Made a smart early stop from Aguero, but was left wrong-footed for the first goal and made a real hash of the second.
Hernandez 6: A largely restrained performance but sprang forward for his team’s best chance, shooting too close to Armani.
Chancellor 6: Dominant in the air and dogged albeit rather clumsy on the ground. Plenty of endeavour but sometimes out of his depth.
Mago 5: Struggled to contain the movement of Martinez and was replaced early in the second half in a tactical reshuffle.
Rosales 7: The versatile full-back lined up on the left and produced a typically hard-working display, always looking to get forward.
Rincon 5: The Venezuela skipper made a hash of his clearance for the opener and that rather summed up a wayward performance.
Moreno 6: Tried to keep things moving and battle for loose balls in the centre of the field but was second best to Paredes.
Herrera 6: Initially the most attacking of Venezuela’s midfield trio but was later repositioned into the centre of defence.
Murillo 5: Flitted in and out of the game down the right, struggling to offer a sustained threat and getting little change out of Tagliafico.
Rondon 6: Provided a physically powerful presence in attack, but ultimately found himself well shackled by Argentina’s back line.
Machis 6: Venezuela’s most dangerous player, showing searing pace down the left, but couldn’t deliver meaningful crosses and was replaced.
Soteldo 6: Entered the fray early in the second half as an attacking midfielder and showed some nice technique, but couldn’t create anything.
Martinez 5: Introduced for Machis on the left wing with 20 minutes left, but made less impact than the man he replaced.
Seijas 5: Came on for Rosales in the final stages and had little opportunity to make a meaningful impact.
Brazil survived the scare of a penalty shoot-out to advance into the semi-finals of Copa America with a narrow triumph over Paraguay, but the game left more questions than answers as the hosts were held to a stalemate in normal time.
Even the advantage of playing against ten men for half an hour was not enough for Tite’s men to make the breakthrough they needed, and a penalty miss by Roberto Firmino left the shoot-out poised at 3-3 after four kicks apiece, before Derlis Gonzalez’s miss allowed Gabriel Jesus to stroke home the winner.
Needing the lottery of penalties to advance past a poor team like Paraguay does not bode well for Brazil’s chances of going all the way, but every tournament winner needs a bit of fortune and maybe Brazil’s came as they ended a run of bad-luck exits against Paraguay – which starts off our talking points from the game.
Paraguayan penalty hoodoo buried
After suffering Copa America exits in penalty shoot-outs against Paraguay in both 2011 and 2015, Brazilian hearts must have collectively sank when this tie finished goalless to force another bout of penalties.
But it proved to be third time lucky for the hosts as they prevailed in a nervy shoot-out 4-3, bookended by Liverpool keeper Alisson saving the first kick and Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus banishing a disappointing overall display by converting the last.
The fact they eventually managed to win is the only real positive Brazil can take from the game, because it was not a good performance as they struggled to break down a resolute Paraguay side which was reduced to ten men for the final half hour with the dismissal of Fabian Balbuena for a last-ditch foul on Roberto Firmino.
True, Brazil did create chances to win the game in normal time, only to be denied by a combination of wayward finishing, good goalkeeping from Paraguay stopper Roberto Fernandez and the upright blocking a strike from substitute Willian. But the chances Brazil fashioned were largely through perspiration rather than inspiration, and the star forward trio of Philippe Coutinho, Jesus and Firmino were all below par. So a win is a win, but coach Tite will have plenty of food for thought.
Poor pitch hampers hosts
Much of the pre-match chat was centred around the question of whether Brazil would be able to find fluidity on a poor pitch in Porto Alegre, and those fears proved to be well-founded as the hosts struggled to produce much flowing football despite enjoying a predictably heavy share of the possession.
The hard and uneven nature of the surface made close control difficult, and midfield playmaker Arthur Melo committed a few uncharacteristic errors as the ball bobbled frustratingly out of reach, while wingers Everton and Jesus were hampered in their dribbling efforts by the unreliable rub of the green, and Coutinho was particularly off colour as he struggled to make his usual quick bursts and changes of direction.
Of course, the pitch cannot be solely blamed for the disjointed nature of Brazil’s performance, but the condition of the turf quite simply should not be allowed to become any kind of protagonist in such a major match as a continental quarter-final. And the game should be used as an example and a warning to future organisers of major tournaments: if you want to host a big event, at least provide a decent pitch.
VAR plays its part
It seems that no football game can take place at the moment without VAR playing a central part in proceedings, and that proved to be the case again here as a big flash point in the second half exerted a significant impact upon the rest of the game.
With an hour played, Brazil’s forward duo of Firmino and Jesus produced their best interchange of the night as the latter released a perfect pass to give the Liverpool man a run through on goal. Firmino’s charge was halted by a desperate last-ditch challenge from Balbuena, and referee Roberto Tobar pointed straight to the spot for a penalty. So far, so straightforward.
But then came VAR. After consulting with his tech-based assistants, Tobar jogged to the sidelines to review the incident and came away with two conclusions: firstly, he flourished a straight red card in the face of Balbuena for the challenge, and then changed his initial penalty decision to a free-kick on the edge of the box, judging the offence to have taken place just before the line of the penalty area.
In VAR’s defence, both decisions – red card and free-kick – were correct, so justice was served. But they were also fairly marginal, and many fans will feel technology should not intervene for close calls. And more importantly, the review just took too long, with five minutes elapsing between the foul and the taking of the eventual free-kick. This, surely, is where VAR must be improved: use technology to make better decisions, by all means. But use it quickly. If not, we’ll all get bored.