Ralph Hannah –
After 18 games, 46 goals and a few hundred minutes waiting for VAR – the 2019 Copa America Group stages are over. In Group A Brazil have shown why they are tournament favourites, topping their group without conceding. In Group B Argentina suffered but won to qualify while Paraguay kept up their tradition of advancing to the quarter finals without winning (3 times in last four tournaments). Uruguay and Chile both performed well in Group C with the former showing a bit more guile to come top and avoid facing the only side with a 100% record, Colombia.
The Copa America quarterfinals and my opinion on the best and the worst of the tournament so far:
27 June: Brazil vs Paraguay, Porto Alegre
28 June: Venezuela vs Argentina, Rio de Janeiro
28 June: Colombia vs Chile, Sao Paulo
29 June: Uruguay vs Peru, Salvador
Top of Class: Colombia
It would have been reasonable to think Colombia might treat this as a transition tournament, and experimenting with some of the newer players such as Duvan Zapata, William Tesillo and Roger Martínez. But Carlos Queiroz has done a fantastic job in such a short period of time, getting Colombia very organised and identifying the key players for his system. The only side to win all three games so far and never looked in danger of losing.
The Chile clash will be the biggest test so far having faced an out-of-sorts Argentina in the opener, but they are probably the side best equipped to thwart the rapid attacking threat of Alexis, Vargas and Fuenzalida.
Surprise Package: Chile
Despite being defending champions, their failure to qualify for the World Cup and subsequent hiring of a new coach in Reinaldo Rueda suggested the old guard would be dismantled and a transition period entered into. But the team of 30-somethings have provided vibrant counter-attack football with players like Alexis Sánchez recapturing some of his best form ably partnered by Copa America talisman Eduardo Vargas. They have only been in a losing position for 8 minutes so far after Cavani’s late header in their final game.
Biggest disappointment: Ecuador
The Andean side looked rudderless in all three games, they finished with the second-worst record behind Bolivia and had as many red cards (2) as goals. In stark contrast to Colombia and Chile, Bolillo Gómez hasn’t found his best team and hasn’t got the players motivated. The ill-discipline on the pitch had spread into the dressing room.
Renato Ibarra was meant to have been withdrawn with injury, but the player confirmed before the crucial decider against Japan that Gómez had asked him to leave after a falling out. In the aftermath of the draw in the final game, in which Japan had more possession and shots on goal, the Ecuadorean press were already asking if it was time to resign.
Copa America Best Player(s): Everton/Wilmar Barrios
The Brazilian winger has been electric scoring two cracking goals in just 117 minutes on the pitch so far. With Coutinho often drowned out in the middle it has often been up to the Gremio wide-man to open up the games, and the 23-year-old has stepped up to the pressure.
Wilmar Barrios must also get a mention for the terrific displays in central midfield, moving the ball intelligently and closing down spaces. He has committed just one foul all tournament and is yet to be dispossessed. His tactical discipline and technical excellence have been key to Colombia’s strong start.
So what will happen next?
Short answer – Brazil should win it. They are without star man Neymar and didn’t convince in the first two games, yet they came through the group stages with eight goals scored and 0 conceded. Tite used the three matches to find the best balance for his side and hit the magic formula against Peru with Arthur and Everton starting together.
Defensively Colombia are the only side that look like they can withstand the verdeamarelho, and they should be favourites to reach the final. But the Cafeteros have always had a mental weakness when facing their bigger neighbours. They have won three times, 1985 in Bogotá and twice in Chile (1991 & 2015) drawing nine and losing 19 – with their last three games in Brazil ending in defeat.
Other than Colombia the only team that could test Brazil are Uruguay, Óscar Tabarez’s side crushed Ecuador in the opening game and then were under par against Japan and Chile yet still secured four points to top Group C. With Suárez and Cavani up front they can afford to bypass midfield and go direct, but in the event that they want to control possession they have Valverde and De Arrascaeta who can support Betancur.
But what about Argentina and Messi?
Argentina have been poor, overrun by Colombia and outwitted by Paraguay only to survive with a point thanks to a dubious penalty given by VAR and the Albirroja missing a spot-kick themselves. Had Lautaro Martínez not netted a goal early on against Qatar in the decider to settle their nerves that game might have taken a different turn.
Messi has one goal, a penalty, and five shots on target so far and he is finding himself forced wide as Scaloni’s tactics prefer to keep the ball away from the middle. He has also seen the team shift around him each game, starting with Di Maria and Aguero vs Colombia, then just Martínez and finally Aguero and Martínez against Qatar. In Venezuela, they will face an opponent that has conceded just once and will relish being underdogs like they were in the 0-0 draws against Peru and Brazil.
Ralph Hannah is Londoner, who has lived in Luque and is now located in Miami, with a keen interest in Paraguayan football history and statistics. A frequent traveler throughout Latin America he attends games throughout the region and has written for a variety of publications and set up the first English-language blog on Paraguayan Football. When not in the Defensores del Chaco he’s looking after his 2 daughters. Follow Ralph on Twitter @paraguayralph.