Saturday, 23 July 2011

Surprises galore but Suárez the key man

The 2011 Copa America didn’t really work out as planned for Argentina. With the world’s best player, home advantage and an 18-year trophy drought to break, a quarter-final exit wasn’t on the agenda. And as the hosts continue to lick their wounds, their borders will be engulfed this weekend as neighbours Paraguay and Uruguay head to Buenos Aires for Sunday’s final.

To describe the final as beauty versus the beast would be an exaggeration. Uruguayan football can rarely have been described as having a culture built around elegance, but while the never say die attitude that has seen a country of three million people win 14 Copa Americas and two World Cups remains, there is an extra subtlety to this side which has produced great success over the past year.

Last summer that subtlety came from Diego Forlan’s combination of creation and finishing that saw him named the World Cup’s best player. This time round it has been Luis Suárez’s outstanding example of how to lead the line that has impressed.

Suárez’s two goals were enough to see off Peru in the semi-final and take him level with Sergio Agüero at the head of the scorer’s charts, but it has been much more than his goalscoring that has caught the eye. The Liverpool striker set up Uruguay’s opener against Chile, has laid on an abundance of opportunities for Forlan and against Argentina, with his side down to 10 men, showed great intelligence in winning a number of free-kicks which not only gave rest bite to his defence, but eventually saw Argentina also lose a man when Javier Mascherano saw a second yellow for clipping Suárez’s heels.

Whilst Uruguay’s blend of steel and striking prowess has seen them deservedly arrive at the final, it has been defensive obduracy and a degree of good fortune that has helped Paraguay through.

Amazingly Paraguay have yet to win a match in open play at the tournament. Three draws in the group stages were enough to qualify as the second best third-placed side and consecutive penalty shootout victories over Brazil and Venezuela after 0-0 draws hasn’t made them the most entertaining side to watch.

They also arrive at the final on their last legs. Goalkeeper and hero of the shootout victories Justo Villar said immediately after the semi-final:

“After two lots of extra-time we arrive at the final with almost no oxygen, with five or six injured and one suspended. Uruguay is in a different state. Their key players are rested, but we will fight to the utmost.”

Paraguay’s fight can never be questioned, but by all rational theory the title is Uruguay’s to lose. They have had an extra days rest having played their semi-final 24 hours ahead of Paraguay, have played only one stint of extra-time and quite simply are a better, more balanced side.

A Uruguayan victory would also move them ahead of Argentina as South America’s most crowned champion. A final insult of a competition the hosts would care to forget.

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