It looked like smooth sailing for Argentina at the end of the first half of its opening Copa America match, up two-nil against Paraguay. But as has so often been the case throughout this tournament, Paraguay had other ideas. Two second-half goals from the un-fancied Paraguayans saw the tournament’s favorite held to a draw.
Argentina coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino will be determined to avoid a similar fate when the two sides meet again in a semi-final clash Tuesday. Martino has the best squad in the tournament at his disposal and the manager won’t want to let Paraguay, the team he coached all the way to the final four years ago, level the playing field by drawing Argentina into a penalty shootout.
Both teams reached the semis by progressing on penalties in the previous round: Argentina against Colombia, and Paraguay against Brazil. Argentina, along with hosts Chile, is considered the favorite to reach the final. But despite a lack of high-wattage stars, this Paraguay team has defied expectations throughout the tournament and is not to be taken lightly.
Meanwhile, Argentina has seen its top attacking talent underperform in the Copa thus far: even Lionel Messi has only one goal in four matches. Argentina also has the added pressure that comes with being favorites to win it all. On the plus side, Martino will have his entire squad to draw from, though his star trio of Messi, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero will all have to watch their step, all having received yellow cards.
In the other dugout, Paraguay coach Ramon Diaz will have to make do without injured midfielder Nesto Ortigoza; there are also doubts over defender Miguel Samudio. Paraguay was essentially written off as furniture before the tournament began. Having already exceeded expectations, Diaz’s men will have freedom of meeting Argentina with relatively light pressure on them.
On the strength of the tournament so far, the result is anything but a foregone conclusion. With strikers like Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina have by far the better squad. However Messi is the player Martino will be looking to. Although the Barcelona ace led his country all the way to the World Cup final last summer, he has yet to lift a trophy with Argentina. If Messi can lead his team past Paraguay Tuesday, he will have the chance to answer his critics by leading Argentina to the final and possibly, to its first Copa America triumph since 1993.