Friday, July 15, 2011

Meanwhile, in Argentina...

The 2011 Copa America has reached the knock-out stages.

Sat 16th: COLOMBIA v PERU 16:00, ARGENTINA v URUGUAY 19:15
Sun 17th: BRAZIL v PARAGUAY 16:00, CHILE v VENEZUELA 19:15

I never quite know what to make of the South American Championship. Because there are only ten CONMEBOL nations they have to invite guests, like the USA in 1995 or 2007, so it feels odd from the start. Then there are those crowds, smaller than the European Championship's.

To be fair the stadia in Argentina have not been that empty, but you could not help but notice the swathes of empty seating in Cordoba this week, and that was for Brazil...

The fences, terracing and austere concrete of the grounds remind me of my formative fan years in England, while the heavy coats and visible vapour bring back uncomfortable memories of freezing nights in Johannesburg last 'summer' at the World Cup. The time difference is tough if you live in Europe (memories of USA'94), and I have fallen asleep twice this week, even though the football was high quality.

The big story so far has been Argentina's rubbish start. You can put a draw in the opening game down to nerves, but when the Albiceleste then stumbled to a 0-0 with Colombia, with Leo Messi and Carlos Tevez looking lost and little coordination among the team, the knives were rightly out. Colombia missed chances and were probably the better team and with a little fortune would have put the hosts into real trouble. The press had a field day, talking of the coach guiding the Titanic towards the iceberg, and relishing reports of a locker-room spat between Messi and Nicolas Burdisso.

Needing a win in their last game against guests Costa Rica, the Albiceleste obliged with an easy 3-0 in a clash so placid it felt like a friendly at times, with a dearth of pressing allowing Messi to weave his magic once more. Maybe the Ticos had only planned to be out there for the first round. Tevez was dropped and Sergio Aguero stepped in as a target man, scoring two of the goals.

Brazil have looked much better, creating plenty of chances and with Neymar the confirmed star of the new seleçao and Alexandre Pato, dropped for the World Cup, back in the yellow and green and bagging two against the disappointing Ecuador. Brazil ought to ease past Paraguay, who despite playing well have failed to make it count and sloppily let Venezuela score in the 89th and 92nd minute of their group game to steal a point.

Venezuela are a hard-working team and finished level on points with Brazil in Group A, though will still have to up their game to beat the mobile Chileans in San Juan.

Colombia look the most likely team to spoil the pencilled-in Argentina v Brazil final, and will relish a semi-final rematch with the Albiceleste. Their formation looks sound and their interplay slick, but have missed a number of chances. Chelsea target Falcao has looked dangerous but isolated up front.

Standing in the way of Los Cafeteros however are Peru, who having finished rock-bottom of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, made it through to the Copa last eight having beaten Mexico's B-team and tied with Uruguay in Group C.

Uruguay, World Cup semi-finalists, have been muted so far. 1-1 with Peru and Chile and a narrow 1-0 win over Mexico. But they have no more excuses as they face Argentina in the pick of the round.

The oldest South American clash is redolent with history: No two nations in world football have faced each other more (198) and Argentina v Uruguay was the first international soccer clash outside of the British Isles. I expect the hosts to triumph but Uruguay can take inspiration in the nickname of the Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao Lopez in Santa Fe - 'The Elephants' Graveyard'.

- Sean O'Conor

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