LONDON – Saturday night saw but two shocks in the first of the Copa America quaterfinals. Not only did hosts Argentina fall at the hands of old foes Uruguay, but Colombia crashed out after Sergio Markarian's spirited Peru side held its nerve to capitalize on Los Cafeteros' generous mood in front of both goals.
Let's All Blame Carlitos
He shouldn't have been on the pitch. He shouldn't have started his side's first two matches. He shouldn't even have been in the squad. But he was, he did, and he squeezed in at the last.
So as he stepped up to take a penalty that he was never supposed to be there to take, you just knew what was coming.
And as a sprawling Muslera turned his weak penalty aside, the man who wasn't in Argentina coach Cecho Batista's plans until it came time to name a preliminary squad for the competition sealed both his team's, and most likely his coach's, fate. The host nation, boasting the finest collection of forwards of any country in the world, and the world's best player, were out.
And it was all his fault. They all wanted him. So Checho gave him to them. El Jugador del Pueblo. One of them. Heck, one of us. A regular Joe. A man of the people. And how did he repay us? With two shoddy performances and a penalty miss.
Let's all blame Carlos Tevez. The mercenary.
Forget the fact that his long omission from the squad was undoubtedly political, with Batista unhappy with the Man City star's public support for the man he had replaced, Diego Maradona. Forget that Tevez was deployed out of position wide on the left. Forget that he was surrounded by world class players that his coach repeatedly failed to get the best out of. Forget that the same coach spent months formulating a new system only to abandon it after two matches. Forget, too, that massive changes of personnel: only six of the eleven that started Argentina's first match against Bolivia did so on Saturday evening.
Only we can't forget. We can't forget all those things and more. Neither can we forget Javier Mascherano's stupid challenge that gave referee Carlos Armarilla the opportunity to make one of the worst decisions of the tournament and show El Capitán a red card. We can't forget, and neither should we.
Batista said last night that he "wouldn't call it a failure", but with just one win from four matches on home soil it's pretty hard to label it anything else.
But amidst all the vitriol, it's also worth noting the disservice being done to coach Oscar Tabarez and his Uruguay side. It seems something of a cliche to repeatedly cite la garra charrúa - term derived from Uruguay's indigenous Charrua people, it's used to describe an unrelenting desire to keep fighting no matter how helpless the cause - but there seems little else to suitably describe the valiant and indefatigable performances of midfield three Arevalo Rios, Alvaro Pereira and Alvaro Gonzalez following Diego Perez's first half dismissal.
It was evident during Uruguay's run to the World Cup semi final and now it's got La Celeste through to its fifth successive Copa America semifinal. "In [our] hardest moments, when we needed it most," said Tabarez, "we showed the things we saw at the World Cup."
Toothless Tiger Chokes As El Loco Stands Tall
From their pre-tournament friendlies it was clear that Colombia's biggest problem this month was going to be creating the chances necessary to get the best out of their best. Porto's prolific Radamel Falcao arrived in Argentina this month following a quite extraordinary season that saw him shatter Jurgen Klinsmann's UEFA cup goalscoring record, notching 17 goals in just 14 matches en route to a Europa league title.
Saturday night, though, Colombia's problem wasn't creating chances, but taking them. It hit the post. It hit the bar. It flashed shots wide, some narrowly over and one or two flying towards the corner flag. But when, in the 66th minute, Colombia was rightly awarded a penalty for Alberto Rodriguez's professional foul - which should have seen him walk - on Dayro Moreno, Falcao's moment had arrived. After going close against Costa Rica and Argentina, Falcao had bagged a brace against a poor Bolivia in Colombia's final group game. He should have been in confident mood.
But he choked, firing his penalty wide. And when Feddy Guarin evaded three Peru defenders only to see his shot smash of the bar in the final minute of stoppage time, the game was up.
Luis Martinez gifted Peru one, if not both its goals in extra time. Having already crashed into Mario Yepes and spilling a free-kick for Carlos Lobaton to smash a sublime volley through a crowd into an empty net, it was his poor clearance that ended with Juan 'El Loco' Vargas hammering in a second. Colombia had nobody but themselves to blame. "We took advantage of Colombia's mistakes," noted Lobaton.
"We should've been victorious after 90 minutes," said coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who was intent on focusing on the positives last night. "In four games we created 36 opportunities to score, we have a good defense and always played good soccer; this is how I [will] remember the Copa America. We have a team for the [World Cup] qualifiers."
Peru, meanwhile, have made the semifinals for the first time in 14 years in what is a huge achievement for coach Sergio Markarian. La Blanquirroja finished rock bottom of the last round of World Cup qualifiers. It's an accomplishment made all the more remarkable by the injury crisis that hit Peru shortly before the tournament began, leaving it without a number of first team players including both Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan.
"It was a huge effort," said Markarian, "my players showed great discipline." And the 66-year-old is confident his side can use the victory as a springboard to reawaken Peruvian soccer. "Today we have taken a big step, not only in the Copa America, but for the World Cup [qualifers]. This victory will unite us even more."
There were two more upsets on Sunday night as Brazil and Chile followed fellow favourites Argentina and Colombia out of the Copa America at the quarterfinal stage.
Farcical shootout not enough to paper over Mano's cracks
Elano's flew of the bar, and is probably still heading towards a Buenos Aires plaza somewhere. Minutes later, Andre Santos's set off in chase of it. Fred at least managed to catch his just as it was beginning its take off into the La Plata night sky, but not sufficiently enough to get it on target.
"You don't need to do analyze all four of our missed penalties," said coach Mano Menezes. "[They] highlight the difficulty [we had] with the penalty spot."
The penalty shootout to decide the third semifinalist descended into farce, as each strike from the spot brought with it a fresh lump of lawn. Brazil can have no excuses, but the fact that conditions were farcical both teams made them no less of a farce.
Brazil, like the turf beneath it, was falling apart. And like Argentina and Colombia before it, could look no further than itself.
Andre Santos complained that they were sinking "ankle deep" into the turf; if he had squared for Alexandre Pato five minutes before half-time instead of blazing his shot high over the bar then it wouldn't have mattered.
"The pitch was bad," said Pato, "it was terrible." It was. But it was fine when he stuck his shot straight at Justo Villar from six yards.
By the time the referee brought extra time to an end, Brazil should have had the game won. It had dominated all evening. It completed more passes and had more efforts on goal than in any of its three previous matches. In fact, had a goal arrived from one of the many opportunities the likes of Neymar and Pato squandered, then tonight's performance would likely have been greeted positively by the press both home and abroad. But it didn't. And it won't be. "We did not get the goal," said Menezes, "which is the most important thing."
"We were [the] better [team]," said a dismayed and disconsolate Robinho at full-time. The AC Milan forward was Brazil's standout performer, frequently dropping deep to link the play and create for Neymar and Pato. And it was his ball, after an excellent reverse pass from Paulo Henrique Ganso, that set Neymar clear on 27 minutes. But the Mohican-topped wonderkid uncharacteristically snatched at the chance, placing his shot just wide of Villar's post.
Ganso was better, though still nowhere near his best. He was key Mano's Brazil. To the 'new Brazil'. The Post-Dunga Brazil that wanted to play with style and panache. It was never truly going to find its groove until he did.
Both before and during the tournament, Menezes has insisted that the CBF are interested only in performances and the "evolution" of Brazil ahead of the 2014 World Cup, which they will host. "It's time to raise our heads and think about winning the World Cup in our country," added Robinho. "We have to improve."
It certainly does. But with no competitive soccer to play before the Confederations cup in two years time, Menezes has quite a task on his hands. If they let him, that is. Now is the time we find out whether Menezes' bosses will keep their word and allow him to usher in Brazilian soccer's new era.
La Vinotino's Coming Out Party
Venezuela has emerged as a genuine soccer nation these past two and a half weeks. And it continued to make history last night, beating Chile to reach the Copa America semifinals for the first time in its history.
"We showed we are at the South American level," said coach Cesar Farias, who showed his pride by parading around the pitch in celebration beneath a Venezuelan flag.
Venezuela took the lead on 35 minutes when Oswaldo Vizcarrondo headed Juan Arango's free-kick past a helpless Claudio Bravo after Chile left the defender completely unmarked. Coach Claudio 'Bichi' Borghi reacted by replacing Carlos Carmona with Jorge Valdivia at half-time, and, as he had done so against Uruguay, the substitute made an immediate impact. From then on it was all Chile.
Humberto Suazo was outstanding in qualification for World Cup 2010, finishing as top goalscorer as Marcelo Bielsa led Chile to South Africa. But injury problems left him to endure a miserable tournament, and left Chile fans wondering what if. Having failed to find the net in the Copa so far, 'Chupete' finally came good again when he smashed an equaliser in off the underside of the bar with twenty minutes remaining.
But Chile couldn't find a winner. And in two crazy minutes, Gabriel Cichero wrote himself into Venezuelan soccer folklore; thanks largely to Bravo. Another Arango set piece evaded everyone before bouncing up into Bravo's midriff. The Chile keeper, however, inexplicably let the ball rebound off his chest and straight to Cichero, who poked home from close range. Minutes later, Cichero would clear Atruro Vidal's effort off the line.
The only negative for Venezuela was the ludicrous dismissal of Tomas Rincon in stoppage time, who received a straight red card for pulling back Valdivia. The midfielder has been its star of the tournament. Vital to his team's ability to stop the ball travelling through its midfield, Rincon made 11 interceptions against Chile alone.
"We know that they are celebrating in our country," said Farias. "We will allow ourselves a brief moment of joy in the locker room after the game, but now we have to think about the semifinal."
Venezuela will now play Paraguay in the semifinals on Wednesday, and Farias has already set his sites on the final.
"All four favorites were eliminated [in the quarterfinals]... we want more."