With the Group Stage now in the bag, there’s a sense that South America’s big guns are still priming to be fired at this year’s Copa America. While pre-tournament favorites Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay are all through to the quarterfinals, only host nation Chile has managed to look impressive thus far. But with a small pool of just 12 teams, the heavyweight clashes come fast and thick in the Copa America. With the quarters set to kick off on Wednesday it’s time for the big boys to step up.
Chile vs. Uruguay – Wednesday 6/24
On the strength of performances so far, Chile is looking as close to an odds-on favorite as anyone in this tournament right now. While Brazil, Argentina and Colombia have struggled to get out of first gear, the home side has hit the ground running. Undefeated, with wins against Ecuador and Bolivia and a draw with Mexico, Chile’s biggest mishap at the tournament so far happened off the pitch, when star player Arturo Vidal crashed his Ferrari and was subsequently arrested for drunk driving.
While the Juventus midfielder has been spared incarceration for the time being, he’s brought disgrace down on the team and thrown the balance and harmony of the squad into serious jeopardy. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has refused to bow to public pressure and taken the controversial decision to not eject Vidal from the team; like Hope Solo with the USWNT, his importance outweighs whatever baggage he may have in tow.
Chile competed in the very first Copa back in 1916, but have yet to win the competition. Playing at home with Vidal among the leading lights in a talented team that also includes Alexis Sanchez and Barcelona keeper Claudio Bravo, this may be their best chance to finally lift the trophy and establish themselves as a true South American heavyweight.
First, they will have to get past defending champion Uruguay, a team they haven’t beaten in the Copa since 1983. Although they’ve not exactly set the tournament alight so far, Uruguay has lost only once in their last nine matches in the Copa and hasn’t lost a quarterfinal since the early 1990s. But Oscar Tabarez’s team has been forced to play without its best player, thanks to Luis Suarez’s ongoing international ban for the biting incident at last summer’s World Cup.
And we’ve yet to see anywhere near the best from Edinson Cavani. With no Suarez, expectations are riding on Cavani to come up big against hosts and favorites Chile on Wednesday. But it’s not just Cavani who needs to step it up. Uruguay has been short of goals in general in this Copa so far. The two goals it has scored have come from a defender and midfielder and none of its forwards has yet found the back of the net. Despite their impressive Copa America pedigree, if Uruguay is to have any hope of beating Chile and retaining the title, they’ll need to see more from strikers like Diego Rolan, Abel Hernandez and especially Cavani. Although he’s failed to find the net in any of Uruguay’s previous three matches, the Paris Saint-Germain striker has a chance to be the hero for his nation on Wednesday.
Bolivia vs. Peru – Thursday 6/25
Despite having been on the wrong end of a 5-0 thrashing from Chile in their last outing, Bolivia somewhat surprisingly have made it out of a tough group that also included Ecuador and Mexico. Handed a relatively easy draw in Peru, the Bolivians have a genuine shot of extending their underdog run into the semis. While Mauricio Soria’s team hasn’t offered much going forward, Bolivia has been solid defensively, apart from the loss to Chile of course.
Peru has also punched above its weight at the Copa so far, finishing second in Group C, behind Brazil and ahead of Colombia on goal differential. With a loss, a win and a draw in the books, Peru has been unspectacular but steady so far. In their opening narrow 2-1 loss to Brazil and in Sunday’s scoreless stalemate with Colombia, they showed they’re unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the tournament’s heavyweights. Their strongest performance so far, a 1-0 win over Venezuela, saw a goal from veteran striker Claudio Pizarro. The Bayern Munich man is one of the players coach Ricardo Gareca will look to as his side seeks to navigate its way into the semis for the second consecutive Copa running and at least keep themselves in the running to win the competition for the first time since 1975.