Are they finally finding a winning formula?
Argentina’s performance in their 2-0 quarter-final victory over Venezuela was by far their best of the Copa America so far, and it was made even more encouraging that they did it despite an off-night from skipper Lionel Messi.
After a long time in the doldrums, La Albiceleste appear to be on the charge – and they’re heading for a mouthwatering collision course with fellow South American giants Brazil in the competition’s last four. Find out more with our post-match talking points.
MESSI BANISHES MARACANA NIGHTMARE? KIND OF…
The easy headline to draw from the game is that Messi banished the nightmare memory of his previous trip to the iconic Maracana stadium for the 2014 World Cup final.
But branding this game as Messi’s ‘Rio Redemption’ would be overselling his contribution, because in truth he was unable to make much of an impact and – aside from a deep outswinging corner which led to the opening goal – he had little direct influence over the outcome.
The second goal is a good example of how the game largely passed Messi by: Rodrigo De Paul did well to retrieve possession on the right wing and drove forward, bypassing Messi to cut a square pass into Sergio Aguero on the edge of the box.
Rather than laying off the ball for Messi, the Manchester City striker turned to shoot, and when Venezuela keeper Wuilker Farinas badly fumbled the ball, Gio Lo Celso was on hand to convert.
Messi particularly struggled during the first half, when the front pairing of Lautaro Martinez and Aguero enjoyed a much better connection with each other than either of them did with Messi, and at times it appeared the Barcelona captain was unsure whether he should drop into midfield to pick up possession or stay high up the pitch to link with the strikers.
On the whole, this was probably his worst performance of the season…but he will have enjoyed, at least, the outcome.
ARGENTINA FINALLY FINDING BALANCE
Perhaps perversely, Messi’s rather subdued performance might not be such a bad piece of news for Argentina. In fact, it could be the best thing that has happened to them for a very long time.
So often in recent years, La Albiceleste’s tale has been a case of ‘Messi or nothing’. Either their captain would come to the rescue, or they would fail. That led to a culture of dependency which reached extreme levels during last summer’s World Cup finals in Russia and the opening couple of games in Brazil for this Copa America.
Throughout that period, Argentina seemed to have no collective plan other than trying to give the ball to Messi and hoping for the best. On the occasions they couldn’t give the ball to Messi, they floundered horribly, lacking any kind of functional team structure to work effectively without the input of their star player.
Finally, though, they seem to have stumbled across the one key element which has been so badly missing for so long: balance. In this game, Messi did not play well but it didn’t even matter, because Argentina’s overall structure was good enough. If that continues, they may yet go all the way.
NO LM? NEW LM
Although the expected ‘LM’ superstar was unable to step up and prove decisive, another one certainly did as Lautaro Martinez continued his ascent with a well-taken opening goal and an eye-catching all-round performance.
Martinez has been on the fringes of the Argentina team for a while now, but missed out on a place in last year’s World Cup squad behind veterans Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, and also came into this tournament as a back-up to Aguero after a mixed season with Inter Milan.
But after failing to play any part in the opening loss against Colombia, Martinez was swiftly elevated to the starting eleven by manager Lionel Scaloni and has stayed there ever since, getting on the scoresheet with an early opener in the qualification-clinching victory over Qatar.
He was outstanding in this quarter-final, starting off by teeing up an early chance for Aguero and then pouncing on a miss-hit from Aguero to cleverly flick home the opener.
His mobility, movement and work rate dovetailed nicely with Aguero, and their blossoming partnership adds another dimension to an attack which has been over-reliant on Messi for too long. Finally, Argentina are starting to look like a team and Martinez is playing an integral part.
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.