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COPA AMERICA 2015 the final - El Nino Maravilla v. El Fideo
Knockout Phase Begins
I remember whilst in England in the late 1980's being terribly excited that the Copa America was being shown and I urged my dad to set up the VCR to record the games. Whilst it was the school holidays, sitting up so late was still discouraged. There was no tv coverage like there is today so this was a real treat but when I watched the games I was disappointed. They were dour and slow. I have never forgotten this and have always been a little cautious with the Copa America tournament. However, this summers competition has been a real advert for the game with some swashbuckling football, superb goals, shocks and even some controversy. With the group stage over we saw the surprising progression of the Bolivian team and the elimination of Mexico. What further surprises would the knockout phase bring?
The first quarter final saw group A victors Chile take on the unpredictable Uruguayan team. The hosts Chile had only dropped points in a 3-3 draw with Mexico and were coming of the back off an impressive 5-0 thrashing of surprise group A runners up Bolivia, scoring 10 goals in total in their 3 matches. Uruguay on the other hand had finished 3rd in group B beating the plucky Jamaicans and drawing with the 2011 finalists Paraguay. Despite being without the suspended Luis Suarez, Uruguay are still a useful outfit though having scored only 2 goals in the group phase fire power was clearly a problem. The match was a tight affair which was often bad tempered and physical. It was settled by an 81st minute goal from Mauricio Isla but not before Uruguay forward Edison Cavani saw red for a second booking for tapping Gonzalo Jara in the face which caused the Chilean to perform acting worthy of Charles Dance. Granted Cavani should not have reacted in the manner he did but that level of acting has no place in the game. The extra man proved too much in the end as Isla crashed home from just inside the area with less then 10 minutes to go. Jorge Fucile was also shown a red card late on as Uruguay went down to 9 men and this again for a second booking for a clumsy challenge on Alexis Sanchez or El Nino Maravilla as he is known. It was a deserved booking and could easily have been a straight red in itself. Despite the petulance shown by the Uruguay players they can have few complaints as the hosts progressed to the semi finals.
The winners of the Peru v. Bolivia match would face Chile in the semi finals. Bolivia were really the surprise package having held Mexico to a goalless draw and the having defeated Ecuador 3-2 in a thrilling match. Peru on the other hand also finished second in group C pipping Colombia on goal difference. Bolivia were comfortably beaten by Chile in the final group match and would not have relished a semi final rematch. It was not to be as a hat trick from Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero helped Peru to a comfortable 3-1 victory. Guerrero's first goal was a towering header and really was a goal to grace any tournament. His hat trick goal came as a result of some comedy defending as Bolivian Daniel Bejarano gave away the ball and Guerrero found himself clean through on goal keeping his composure to slot home. Marcelo Moreno scored a late penalty to give Bolivia a consolation goal and they can return home comfortable that they gave a good account of themselves.
Argentina v. Colombia was the 3rd quarter final. Argentina had won group B with 2 wins and a sloppy 2-2 draw against Paraguay having led 2-0. You felt they still had a lot in them and were really playing within themselves. Colombia on the other hand lost their first game to Venezuela, then managed to beat Brazil before being held by Peru. Surprisingly, goals were hard to come by for a Colombia side with Rodriguez, Falcao and Bacca in their ranks. It was a dangerous game for the Argentineans and at 0-0 after 90 minutes they faced the lottery of penalties. Eventually it was left to Carlos Tevez to slot home the winner in sudden death penalties to give Argentina a 5-4 victory.
Paraguay or Brazil were to be Argentina's opponents. Despite being without the talented Neymar, Brazil were still overwhelming favorites with many relishing the prospect of an Argentina v. Brazil semi final. Robinho gave Brazil an early lead but Paraguay had other ideas and in the 72nd minute they were awarded a penalty which Derlis Gonzalez converted. At 21 years old, the striker who plays his club football in Switzerland for Basel showed tremendous composure to equalize. The match went to penalties and after Brazil's Everton Ribeiro and Douglas Costa missed veteran Roque Santa Cruz stepped up with the opportunity to put Paraguay into the next round. Cruz blasted his penalty over the cross bar. Coutinho dispatched Brazil's next penalty and so once again the pressure fell on youngster Gonzalez. He duley obliged and Paraguay were in the Semi Finals and the Brazilian national team once again received a bloody nose after the fiasco of last summers world cup.
The first semi final between Chile and Peru was a lively affair. The hosts were the favorites and took the lead in the 42nd minute thanks to a scrappy goal from Eduardo Vargas. However, on 61 minutes Chilean midfielder Gary Medel put through his own net to give Peru an equalizer. It was then left to Vargas to hit the winner from all of 25 yards. His dipping swerving drive gave the Peruvian goalkeeper no chance and Chile were back in front. The goal and form of Vargas must be somewhat heartwarming for supporters of Napoli where Vargas will play his club football in the 2015/16. Chile held on and will play in Saturday's final.
The second semi final between Argentina and Paraguay was a repeat of the first game Argentina played when they were held to a draw. Many felt that we had not seen the best of this extremely talented Argentinian side who are perhaps the best 1 to 11 in many years from the football crazy country. Certainly the World Cup winning side of 1986 were extremely talented but not even they had the depth that this current side has. There was to be no holding back this time with Manchester United's Marcos Rojo and PSG based Javier Pastore giving Argentina a 2-0 lead inside the first 30 mins. Lucas Barrios pulled a goal back for Paraguay just before half time and you sensed a repeat of the first game. No chance of that as 2 Angel Di Maria goals and further goals from Aguero (his 3rd of the competition) and Higuain gave Argentina a 6-1 victory. The real Argentina had finally showed up and worrying for all - this is without Lionel Messi really hitting form.
With Peru beating Paraguay 2-0 in Friday's 3rd place play off we are now left with the final. A battle between Chile's Alexis Sanchez, the Wonder Boy and Argentina's noodle, Angel Di Maria. Both players play club football in England for Arsenal and Manchester United respectively who are themselves great rivals. Both had very different seasons, Sanchez winning the FA Cup and scoring 16 goals, Di Maria ending up struggling to make the Man Utd starting eleven and scoring just 3 times. It seems fitting that their long seasons should come to an end with them facing each other in the final.
After his performance in the semi final it seems that Di Maria is on the way to rediscovering his best form. His first goal against Paraguay is a demonstration of the explosive pace he possesses. His second goal was a simple tap in after a wonderful Messi run and on goal 5 Di Maria showed his ability to deliver the perfect cross leaving Aguero with a simple header. What should be worrying to Chile is the wonderfully fluid football the Argentinean team played and it seems they are finally clicking at the right time. They have world class players in all positions and Chile will need to be on their game to have a chance of winning.
Chile though boast the home advantage - the infamous 12th man. Alexis Sanchez is by far their best player plus they have the power of Vidal and Medel. Sanchez has come in for some rough treatment in the tournament and like Di Maria he is a supreme talent. Chile can be physical and it is this physicality that could make things uncomfortable for the Argentinean forwards. It is also possible that the influence of the home crowd could inadvertently put pressure on the match officials, something that the Uruguayan side were suggesting at the end of their match. Nonetheless, Chile are worthy of their final place having scored 13 goals on the way. I think in the end the power, pace and skill of the Argentina side will prove too much. They are peaking at the right time and my prediction is a 3-1 Argentina win. Whatever the result, it is fair to say this has been a wonderful tournament and thank you to Chile for hosting it.