Ralph Hannah –
Day 6: Colombia progress, Argentina hang on. Group B threw up two tight and at times utterly boring matches, the results of which saw Colombia march onto the quarterfinals while Argentina (finalists in 3 of the last four competitions) hung on in part thanks to VAR.
Day 6: Colombia have to work hard to overcome Qatar
In the early game, Qatar resisted Colombia until the 86thminute which seems to be “Duvan time” – the Atalanta striker scored in the same minute as against Argentina to ensure the win and qualification for the Cafeteros.
In the early exchanges, Colombia thought they went in front, but the Yerry Mina header was ruled out for offside. Despite dominating possession, they struggled to breakdown an organized Qatar team and the best chance was a Cuadrado shot from distance that was well saved. Unlike the game against Argentina, the former Chelsea player was staying wide and created another good chance when his cross to Zapata was laid off to Medina who fired just wide.
In the 2ndhalf Colombia thought they had a penalty, but once again VAR was the protagonist, overturning the decision on the pitch. Qatar were certainly not out of their depth and began trying to assert themselves with Afif forcing a good save from Ospina. But that gave space for the South Americas to attack, Roger Martínez used his pace to upset the backline and soon Falcao was introduced as a second striker.
It was that change that was key when in the final moments James Rodríguez found himself in a pocket of space and looked up to see two strikers – he aimed for them with a glorious outside of the ball pass that was headed in by Zapata.
With that victory, Colombia assured passage to the quarterfinals and kept their fourth clean sheet in a row.
Day 6: Tense affair between Paraguay and Argentina
Paraguay vs Argentina was a similarly tense affair; both teams made multiple changes after failing to win their opening games. Berizzo introduced six new plaeyrs to the starting lineup while Scaloni surprisingly dropped Aguero in one of four alterations.
The Albiceleste were brighter in the early exchanges, with De Paul and Lo Celso seeing more of the ball than they could against Colombia. But it was Paraguay that would finally have the first shot after 30 minutes of cat and mouse. A great pass by Almirón found Derlis González who forced a corner with his smartly hit low shot.
The Albirroja went one better on 37 minutes, Almirón galloped down the left-hand side and managed to cut the ball back despite being at full pace, it was turned in by youngster Richard Sánchez making just his second start for the senior side.
Sergio Aguero started the second half as Scaloni had seemingly realized the need for two strikers. It brought almost instant results, a great touch by the Man City man to bring the ball down in the box and the ball was then shot against the bar before Messi’s rebound was expertly saved. To the naked eye, it was a corner, but for the all-knowing VAR, it was a penalty – despite none of the players on the pitch appealing the ball had been deflected onto the crossbar by Ivan Piris’ arm. With the benefit of cameras, it was a clear penalty, Messi may have looked nervous, but he dispatched the spot kick expertly.
It was only the second shot on target that Messi and Argentina managed, the other a tame freekick in the first half, and it proved to be the last. In fact, it was Paraguay that should have won the game when they were awarded a penalty of their own just five minutes later. No replays were needed to see that Otamendi had crudely scythed down Derlis González inside the area, but the Paraguay no.10 couldn’t emulate his moment against Brazil in the 2015 Copa when he scored from 12 yards. Armani became the hero as he dived low to his left to keep the ball out.
The miss changed momentum again in what had become a pulsating closing period, but just as the 2-time world champions began to assert themselves, their coach decided to repeat the mistakes from the first game. Lautaro Martínez was replaced by Ángel Di Maria, and with that Paraguay began to have more chances with Almirón always a threat on the break.
But Berizzo seemed tainted by the memory of the Qatar game, and rather than find a winner against a vulnerable Argentina side he looked to close the game out at 1-1. Almirón was hobbling and replaced by a defensive midfielder Celso Ortiz, soon after Derlis González was replaced by defender Juan Escobar. The seven minutes of stoppage time seemed like overkill with both sides too insecure to go for the win. The final whistle a relief for both, mostly for Argentina who go into the Sunday’s game against Qatar knowing that win could still see them crawl through despite 180 minutes of pitiful stuff.
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 traveller 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.