Thursday, 14 July 2011

"Todo llega para quien sabe esperar"

As those who have travelled to South America will know, waiting is most certainly part of the experience. As the locals say, “Todo llega para quien sabe esperar”, (everything will come to those who know how to wait) fittingly patience has been the overriding virtue of the 2011 Copa America.

The competition has slowly built momentum as it has reached the knockout phase. The priority for most sides in the opening games, much like the World Cup in South Africa last year, seemed to be not to lose with the resulting average of just over a goal a game failing to get even Latin hearts racing.

The past week, however, has seen the stars flourish and excitement build. The final two games in the group stage on Thursday night supplied 12 goals, a far cry from the opening weekend when the same four participants: Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela failed to muster a single goal between them.

Indeed the waiting hasn’t just involved the goals but the games themselves with, much to the annoyance of television directors, many failing to start on time. Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela were even fined after taking nearly 25 minutes to have a leisurely half-time cup of tea and orange in their opening fixtures.

Early headlines were dominated by the struggles of the traditional powerhouses of the region. Hosts Argentina along with Brazil and Uruguay were the three seeded sides, but collectively they failed to win any of their first six games.

In Argentina the coverage has unsurprisingly focused on Lionel Messi. Having the world’s best player in your side should be an unparalleled advantage. That is of course unless you focus everything on him to the detriment of everyone else.

A group that included Bolivia, Colombia and an Under-23 Costa Rican side should have amounted to no more than a parade round the provinces for the hosts. Instead, two draws and two pretty dire performances from the team and their number 10 had a country in despair.

Coach Sergio Batista had for the past year spoke of his intention to imitate the Barcelona 4-3-3 model to accommodate Messi. 180 minutes work had been enough to undo a year’s worth of planning. For Monday night’s crucial tie with Costa Rica, Argentina lined up in a very similar 4-2-3-1 to the one that saw Diego Maradona so ridiculed last summer.

Alas, all was alright on the night as Messi appeared more akin to how he does in blue and red pinstripes than the figure in blue and white ones had in the previous two games.

Those two draws did however cost Argentina first place in Group A, that honour going to Colombia who comfortably saw off the other two sides in the group and are yet to concede a goal in the tournament.

Consequently the oldest rivalry in South American football will add another chapter to its history this weekend as the hosts take on Uruguay.

Much had been expected of the Uruguayans following their fourth-placed finish at the World Cup and of the three seeded sides off to a slow start they have been the least disappointing. The excellent link-up play between Diego Forlan and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez on show last summer has been in evidence again and if Forlan had his shooting boots on Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Mexico would have been a rout.

There is even a touch of Scotland about the Uruguayans thanks to impressive young defender Sebastian Coates, a descendant of Scottish ancestry who has played the last two games in place of the injured Diego Godin.

Brazil’s problems have also been less melodramatic than the Argentines. Mano Menezes, who succeeded Dunga as coach last year, has strictly designated this competition as merely a stepping stone to developing a side for the World Cup on home soil in 2014. With that in mind there has been a heavy reliance on youth. Santos wonder kids Neymar and Ganso have started alongside AC Milan’s Alexandre Pato and Thiago Silva, while the Premier League duo of Lucas Leiva and Ramires have been mainstays in the midfield.

The five-time World Cup winners also drew their opening two matches against Venezuela and Paraguay but, despite showing some defensive weaknesses more associated with past generations of Brazilian sides than those in recent years, they did put on their best performance of the tournament to defeat Ecuador 4-2 and clinch to spot in Group B.

Due to the vagaries involved in reducing 12 teams to eight they will meet Paraguay again in the quarter-finals who qualified thanks to being one of the two best third-placed sides.

Refreshingly, it has been Chile who have produced the best football of the tournament so far. The focus of attention has shone on Barcelona bound winger Alexis Sanchez and although the Udinese man has been the star performer, it has been the passing and movement between the midfield and forward units collectively that has been so pleasing on the eye.

Some glaring deficiencies, such as the lack of a world-class centre-forward, remain and should they face Brazil in the semi-finals Chile will have to reverse recent form between the two - Brazil having won their last seven meetings by an aggregate score of 24-3. However, with no other side having made a compelling case the time may just have come for a first Chilean victory in the competition’s 95-year history.



Colombia v Peru (8.00)
Argentina v Uruguay (11.15)

Brazil v Paraguay (8.00)
Chile v Venezuela (11.15)

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