Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Mon 9 July 2007

Copa America 2007 Update

2007 is obviously the year for continental tournaments as no sooner were the United States crowned champions of North and Central America than we followed them into the South American Championships in Venezuela. Yes, the Copa America is back in town again.

Since June 26th, the ten nations of CONMEBOL along with guest participants Mexico and the USA have been battling it out in three groups of four to earn a place in the quarter finals. Here's how things panned out in Round 1, along with news from the recent quarter final matches:

Group A
Hosts Venezuela were the main attraction of Group A and the home fans weren't disappointed as all four teams pretty much cancelled each other out to their advantage.

Peru started the strongest with a surprising 3-0 win over Uruguay while Venezuela twice allowed Bolivia to draw level in a match that finished 2-2.

Four days later and it was all change - Peru lost 2-0 to a rampant Venezuela with Uruguay picking up their first win in a narrow 1-0 victory over Bolivia.

Come July 3rd, it was all to play for - Venezuela had four points, Uruguay and Peru had three and Bolivia had one. Any team could finish in the top two automatic qualifying places in the group, let alone third which could be good enough in the long term.

In the end, the final two games brought about two draws. Bolivia let two leads slip against Peru as Venezuela had done against them before and the hosts themselves tied 0-0 against Uruguay. To the delight of the majority of the fans, Venezuela finished top of the group with five points, Peru qualifying for the quarter finals in second on four, but would Uruguay's four points in third be good enough? One thing was for certain - we wouldn't be seeing more of a battling Bolivian team who ended the tournament bottom of Group A with two draws and a defeat from their three games.

Group B
This group was surely cut and dried right from the start - Brazil and Mexico to qualify, right? After the first round of games, no-one seemed quite so sure as Brazil faltered to a 2-0 defeat to the Mexicans which only highlighted the somewhat experimental look to Dunga's Copa America squad.

Chile, meanwhile, came back from behind twice to win 3-2 against Ecudaor, thanks largely to two Humberto Suazo goals. It was the Chileans that Brazil faced next with something of a face-saving exercise to be done, and so it was, thanks to the efforts of one man - Robinho. His hat-trick, which included a penalty in the 36th minute, flattened Chile and opened up the group in one fell swoop.

The Mexican steamroller had earlier had the same effect on Ecuador as Nery Castillo scored his second of the tournament in a 2-1 victory. Mexico were through to the quarter finals, but would Brazil or Chile claim the second spot?

As luck would have it, the chance for Brazil to complete their re-emergence in the competition would take place against an Ecuador side who almost certainly couldn't qualify. Yet again, however, Brazil would struggle and it was only because of another Robinho penalty in the 56th minute that they managed to seal the extra win they needed.

Chile's task was all the more difficult as their last match saw them go head to head with a Mexican side that looked like they meant business. The only thing going in Chile's favour was the fact that Mexico didn't need to win their last game, and so the ensuing damage limitation exercise predictably ended in stalemate - 0-0.

Brazil and Mexico did claim the top two places in the group after all, but with Brazil finishing second there were a few raised eyebrows. Not everyone was convinced about their strength in depth, but with Robinho in their side, all was surely not lost.

As for Chile, their four points would almost certainly be good enough to claim one of the two 'best third place' spots, but having failed to beat Brazil or Mexico, their chances of finding glory would presumably be slim in the knock-out stages.

Group C
An interesting and competitive group got underway on June 28th with a glut of goals. Salvador Cabañas scored twice and Bayern Munich's Roque Santa Cruz picked up a hat-trick as Paraguay trounced Colombia 5-0, while in the other game in Maracaibo, Argentina beat the United States 4-1.

Eddie Johnson's penalty opened the scoring for the USA in the ninth minute but Hernan Crespo soon equalised before adding a second on the hour mark. Pablo Aimar and Carlos Tévez added two more to seal the victory and reinforce Argentina's label as favourites to win the tournament.

Things were to go from bad to worse for the Gold Cup winners in their next game against Paraguay. Salvador Cabañas was on target again to score the last of three goals in injury time giving Paraguay a 3-1 win which all but handed his team a place in the quarter-finals and possibly send the Americans home.

The Americans clung to the light of hope which came from the second game on July 2nd where Argentina picked up a second win, 4-2, against Colombia. Though Edixon Perea had put the Colombians in front early on, Hernan Crespo equalised in the 20th minute to become Argentina's all-time leading goalscorer ahead of Diego Maradona. Juan Riquelme added two more before half time and though Jaime Castrillón pulled one back for Colombia, Real Zaragoza's Diego Milito put the game out of their reach with a goal in the first minute of injury time.

The penultimate game of Group C would give the United States or Colombia a chance to finish third in the group and possibly earn a place in the quarter finals. American coach Bob Bradley shuffled the pack and put Brad Guzan in goal, leaving only one player with World Cup experience in the starting eleven.

So it was that Colombia took advantage of their inexperienced opponents in the first half, taking the lead on 16 minutes through a Jaime Castrillón goal. The Colombians even had a penalty in the 37th minute when Guzan tripped Hugo Rodallega, but the USA goalkeeper saved to keep his side in the match.

The United States came out stronger in the second half but Colombia were closer to scoring with their chances. The Americans had one last opportunity to get something from the match when Colombia's goalkeeper Robinson Zapata was sent off for time-wasting having already received a yellow card, but his replacement Rodallega helped keep the score at 1-0 and the USA were out of the competition.

Sadly for Colombia, this win wasn't good enough to give them a place in the quarter finals as Uruguay (Group A) and Chile (Group B) had scored more points. This high-scoring group therefore ended with Argentina on top - the only team in the tournament to win all three of their opening games - and Paraguay in second.

Quarter Finals
The second phase began on July 7th in strangely familiar circumstances. Such was the way the competition had been planned that Venezuela played Uruguay for a second time, as did Chile and Brazil.

The hosts took to the field first with Uruguay in San Cristóbal knowing that a repeat of their Group A 0-0 draw would see both teams go to extra time and maybe penalties. In the end, nothing could have been less likely as Uruguayan coach Oscar Tabarez gambled on some attacking gameplay which reaped its reward.

Diego Forlán opened the scoring in the 38th minute forcing Venezuela to look for an equaliser which they got just before half time through a Juan Arango free kick. Pablo Garcia restored Uruguay's lead on 65 minutes, when he drilled home a shot from the edge of the box and this was followed up with two more goals late on from Cristian Rodríguez and, again, Diego Forlán.

So Uruguay were through and were left to begin the patient wait to see who would win the second quarter final between Chile and Brazil. The Chileans were reported to be suffering from indiscipline at their team hotel and this seemed to explain the self-destruction they underwent during their match against the Brazilians.

Defender Juan headed in from a corner in the 16th minute to instigate a barrage of attacks on the Chilean goal. Júlio Baptista added a second seven minutes later before Robinho added two more to take his personal tally for the tournament to six. Josué scored his first for Brazil on 68 minutes and after Chile pulled a consolation goal back through Humberto Suazo, Vágner Love finished the 6-1 route with five minutes remaining.

Brazil were through to the semi finals to face Uruguay in emphatic fashion, but even then the goals didn't stop flying in. The third quarter final saw Mexico dominate their opponents Paraguay thanks to some skilful football and two goals from Nery Castillo.

Paraguay were reeling after just five minutes when goalkeeper Aldo Bobadilla was sent off for bringing down Castillo following a poor back-pass. In between the converted penalty that followed and Castillo's second in the 39th minute, Gerardo Torrado smashed home what was to be Mexico's third in the 27th minute, leaving the second half a virtual non-event.

Paraguay had nothing to offer except the occasional attack which inevitably exposed their numerical disadvantage but they kept the score at 3-0 until the last eleven minutes when Fernando Arce, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Omar Bravo took the score to 6-0.

With Hugo Sánchez's team through to the semis, all that remained was to see whether Argentina would carry on from where they left off against Peru in the last quarter final. Alfio Basile had opted to start the game with Diego Milito up front, but the move backfired as the Peruvian defence prevented him from finding the net.

After a goalless first half, the Argentinian coach played his trump card by replacing Milito with Carlos Tévez. It opened up the whole game for his side and the effects were felt almost instantly. Tevez linked up with Juan Riquelme to help him score Argentina's first before Tevez himself hit the crossbar with a header five minutes later.

Riquelme himself turned provider in the 61st minute, playing a delightful through-ball to Barcelona's Lionel Messi who made it 2-0. In the 74th minute, Tevez set up Messi to shoot again, and though his shot was saved, Javier Mascherano was on hand to put the ball in the back of the net to make it 3-0.

With five minutes of the game left, Tevez's superb performance was complete when he allowed Riquelme to calmly slot the ball past Peru 'keeper Leao Butron for his second and Argentina's fourth. Peru, by their own admission, had been well beaten by a superior side who made full use of the playing talent they had to hand as well as the tactical knowledge of their coach.

So with Argentina set to face Mexico in one semi final on Wednesday and Brazil up against their old rivals Uruguay in the other tomorrow, the 2007 Copa America looks set for a finish every bit as exciting and eventful as the twenty-two games we've seen so far.

Will Argentina complete their free-scoring campaign with victory in the Final or have Brazil timed their gradually improving performances to perfection? Perhaps Uruguay or Mexico will overcome their much-fancied opponents? Whatever you think, let us know by leaving us a comment - we're waiting to hear your thoughts!

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