The quarter-finals of the controversial Copa America is now done. Four teams stand still as games continue in empty stadiums across the country. Argentina easily billed Ecuador 3-0, while Colombia to beat needed penalties Uruguay after a 0-0 pull in normal time.
ESPN looks back on the action of the world’s oldest international tournament.
A strange reunion for Messi
Hernan Galindez is a 34-year-old Argentinian who has become Ecuador’s goalkeeper of choice over the course of this Copa America. He’s the same age and place as Lionel Messi. A striker in youth football, Galindez proudly reports that when he changed position, the first goal he conceded was from Messi.
The last goal he conceded was also scored by Messi – an added-time free kick that flew past him from the edge of the box and gave Saturday’s quarter-finals a 3-0 result that the game may not reflect fairly.
In the last 92 minutes, Messi had failed to beat Galindez despite seeing a shot come back from the inside of the post. Nonetheless, Messi had made the difference, knocking out the goalkeeper with two great passes that set up the goals that decided a fascinating game.
Galindez wasn’t the only Argentine Argentina had to pass. There was also Ecuador’s coach Gustavo Alfaro, a calm and skillful organizer of counter teams. Alfaro’s team forced Argentina to show many of their virtues – and managed to highlight some of their shortcomings.
The main virtue is the circuit of the midfield pass, in which Messi is well integrated and can be easily combined with both Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo De Paulwhile behind them Leandro Paredes organizes the first ball outside of defense. Ecuador worked hard to break the circle, press in midfield and defend high – and so Argentina showed that it could be more direct and beat long to the center forward Lautaro Martinez or move the ball quickly behind Alfaro’s defensive line. That was how the first goal came – Galindez had to parry a shot and Messi played a wonderful diagonal pass to cut him out of the game and give De Paul a chance to shoot home.
Argentina had made its usual quick start. But it was always likely that Ecuador’s pace during the break would cause them problems. Twice in the first half Enner Valencia got close to a goal but didn’t get enough contact with his header on both occasions. Argentina have only conceded two goals in this tournament, but the center of their defense is still not fully confident – and there is also the problem of the team running out of breath in the second half. When Alfaro felt this, he went on the carotid artery, made offensive substitutions during the break and had most of the second half under control. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni reacted by stiffening the central midfield with mid Guido Rodriguez and by introduction Angel Di Maria far right, changes from 4-3-3 to a row of four behind Martinez and Messi.
It paid off, in large part because of Alfaro’s enigmatic insistence with the teenage center-back Piero Hincapiewhich is undoubtedly promising, but just as clearly not ready for this level. In the last 10 minutes, when the game was still very even, he was caught in possession by Di Maria, Messi made the right pass and Martinez scored the decisive home goal. And there was still time for a beautiful diagonal ball from De Paul to put Di Maria behind Hincapie. The defender brought him back and was sent off – and Messi rose to complete his strange reunion with Galindez.
In the long shadow of number 10
The goalscorer is in a mythical tradition – the old-fashioned South American number 10, the gifted, sometimes spoiled personality who associates midfield with attack.
Rodriguez certainly isn’t being spoiled at the moment. The disastrous results last November seemed to have left bad blood in the Colombian camp and new coach Reinaldo Rueda was not convinced of Rodriguez’s fitness. To the great dismay of the player, he was removed from the squad for the Copa America. Also absent is the wonderfully talented Juan Fernando Quintero, who is being held under quarantine restrictions in China. And Rueda clearly does not trust Edwin Cardona of Boca Juniors.
After a deeply disappointing loss to Peru‘Rueda appears to have concluded that Cardona is a luxury player and excluded him from the game against Brazil and Saturday’s meeting with Uruguay.
So Colombia had nothing like a number 10 on its team – an amazing development from the country of Carlos Valderrama. Instead, Rueda played two top players, plus two wingers, one of whom was an improvised striker and two other destructive players in the middle. It was a clear announcement: Colombia would not and could not prevail in midfield. They would be direct, deal with quick transitions and try to get something Duvan Zapata behind the opposing defense.
Uruguay, meanwhile, tried to go the other way around. Veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez was tempted to extend his long tenure for one simple reason. the World Cup in Qatar is a great opportunity for both the great strikers from Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, plus the young and promising midfielders Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur.
But how do you connect the two? In this tournament, Tabarez gave the playmaker expanded opportunities Giorgian De Arrascaeta, a player who has been in the squad for seven years without ever getting a seat. In fact, Tabarez quickly preferred to drop De Arrascaeta after the 2018 World Cup opening game. The reason? It is not easy to fit the player into Uruguay’s 4-4-2 formation. Without express speed or physicality, he prefers the freedom to move centrally.
For this game he was given what he wanted. The dynamic of Valverde covers the right side. Cavani’s self-sacrifice meant that he occasionally fell back to the left – allowing De Arrascaeta to wander behind the central striker.
It was neither a failure nor a success. There were moments when it threatened when De Arrascaeta was embroiled in rapid passing moves that threatened to open up the opposing defenses. But it was more flicker than flames, and in the middle of the second half, Tabarez tried something else, pulling De Arrascaeta back and introducing the more dynamic boys Facundo Torres. The Colombian central midfield duo of Wilmar Barrios and Gustavo Cuellar, however, a wall proved too hard to break through.
And so Tabarez leaves the game – and the competition – with his doubts not yet cleared. The game was a bit like a couple of heavyweight boxers charging but unable to land the knockout blow and Colombia emerged from penalties after a goalless draw. In the semi-finals on Tuesday, Messi will be the youngest rival No. 10, the Barrios and Co. want to neutralize.