The Copa America quarterfinals continue Friday and Saturday. We preview the remaining two matches that will decide the final four in the 2015 edition of the most long-running tournament in international football.
Argentina vs. Colombia - Friday 6/26
Two of the tournament’s sleeping giants go head-to-head in Friday’s fixture. Of the two, it’s Colombia who’ve struggled the most in this tournament so far. James Rodriquez has been nowhere near the player he was at last summer’s World Cup. The Real Madrid man was effective in Colombia’s 1-0 win over Brazil, but compared to his Golden Boot-winning performance last summer, he’s been a virtual passenger. Radamel Falcao, meanwhile, is becoming a liability: He had seven shots in the group stages and hit the target just once.
If Colombia are to have any hope of getting past tournament favorites Argentina, they’re going to need James to step up. Meanwhile, calls to bench Falcao have been growing and there’s a good chance that Coach Jose Pekerman will drop the Monaco man in favor of Jackson Martinez.
The good news for Pekerman’s men is that while they’ve only scored once in the tournament so far, they’ve also only conceded once - in their opener against Venezuela. Against Brazil, Colombia showed a willingness to play ugly in order to stifle a potentially superior team. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but it did the trick, with Brazil golden boy Neymar provoked to the point of a red card that will see him suspended for the rest of the tournament.
But it remains to be seen whether these tactics would be as effective against Lionel Messi and the Argentina team that came in second at the World Cup. Like Colombia, Argentina have been sluggish. Although they’re undefeated in the group stage, they gave up a two-goal lead to draw with Paraguay in their opener and found it anything but easy going in their subsequent 1-0 wins over Uruguay and Jamaica.
Manager Tata Martino has the advantage of arguably the best squad in the tournament at his disposal. With Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain all getting on the scoresheet in the group stage, Argentina have considerable goal threat and may prove more difficult for Colombia to shut down than a one-dimensional Brazil side.
For all his brilliance, Messi has thus far failed to deliver a major trophy for Argentina. Last summer he dragged a rather middling Argentina team all the way to the World Cup final. With both Messi and the players around him having improved in the past 12 months, this Copa may be Argentina’s surest shot at a major trophy for the foreseeable future. Messi should lead by example in putting Colombia to the sword.
Brazil vs. Paraguay – Saturday 6/27
Four years ago Paraguay knocked Brazil out of the Copa on penalties. On Saturday, Selecao coach Dunga will be hoping to avoid a repeat of that. Yet again a team that’s been built around Neymar must try and navigate the latter stages of a major tournament without him. Although in the final group stage match against Venezuela, Chelsea’s Willian demonstrated to be a capable understudy for the Barcelona talisman.
Paraguay made it all the way to the final last time around. At this summer’s tournament they came through the group stage undefeated. Coach Ramon Diaz has put together a sturdy if not spectacular side that proved capable of fighting its way back into a match against one of the top sides in its opener against Argentina. With Brazil still low on confidence and reeling from the Neymar suspension, Diaz’s team can likely smell blood in the water.
Lucas Barrios, who’s scored two of Paraguay’s four goals in the tournament thus far, went off injured in the final group stage match, a 1-1 draw with Uruguay. But the Montpellier man should be fit for Saturday’s clash along with veteran striker Roque Santa Cruz.
Normally a quarterfinal clash between these two teams would be almost a foregone conclusion. Flawed as it is, on paper Brazil still has the much stronger squad. But as we saw against Argentina, this Paraguay squad is not one to get overawed by the occasion. And without Neymar, the one truly world-class attacker in the side, this Brazil team suddenly becomes a lot more ordinary. If Diaz succeeds in getting his tactics right and can stifle and frustrate Brazil the way Colombia did, Paraguay are very much capable of pulling off an upset.