The fourth set of matchdays at the controversial Copa America in Brazil have concluded. The group stage — where eight of the 10 teams advance to the knockout phase — is almost complete as the games roll on at empty stadiums across the country.
Hosts Brazil won Group A by nabbing a 2-1 win over Colombia in a game marred by the referee’s decision, while Peru recovered from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Ecuador. Uruguay laboured to a 2-0 victory over Bolivia, and Chile lost 2-0 to Paraguay. Group B leaders Argentina sat out this round of fixtures, as did Venezuela.
ESPN looks back at the action from the oldest international tournament in the world.
Brazil battle as Tite a victim of his own success
It is now five years since Tite took over as Brazil coach. In that time, adding up World Cup qualifiers, Russia 2018 and two Copa Americas, Brazil have played 32 competitive matches, with just one defeat.
For a while on Wednesday night against Colombia a second loss was a real possibility. Recently, Brazil have hardly looked like conceding a goal and it took something special to breach their defences. Juan Cuadrado‘s cross was met at the far post by a mixture of a volley and an ornamental dive from Luis Diaz, a magnificent half-bicycle kick that put Colombia in the lead for almost 70 minutes of a cool winter night in Rio de Janeiro.
There was huge controversy about Brazil’s equaliser. The ball struck referee Nestor Pitana, who seemed about to blow for a dead ball until he realised that Brazil still had possession. Then he let play continue and Brazil’s substitutes combined, Lucas Paqueta finding left-back Renan Lodi, whose cross was guided across goal by a running header from Roberto Firmino.
Pitana should probably have stopped play — he had unwittingly contributed to what was certainly a promising Brazilian attack — but the Colombians should also have remembered that “play to the whistle” is a golden rule of defending. They were clearly disconcerted and lost concentration right at the end, allowing Casemiro to head a stoppage time winner from a corner.
Both sides progress to the quarterfinals, so happily there are more interesting things to discuss than refereeing decisions.
Colombia can take heart from their defensive discipline (until that fateful moment) and from an excellent display from holding midfielder Wilmar Barrios, who got the better of Neymar for much of the match. But the James Rodriguez debate is not going to go away. He remains their best player and, if fit, would add greatly to their attacking potency.
Brazil, meanwhile, will be pleased to have been tested. It was not easy to break Colombia down, especially on the dreadful pitch at the Nilton Santos stadium. Tite can be especially content with his substitutions. As well as the equalising goal, Firmino supplied a sublime pass for Neymar that ended with the Paris Saint-Germain star hitting the post. With his intelligent movement and subtle skills, Firmino showed his worth to a public who have been clamouring to see more of the home-based players. He replaced midfielder Everton Ribeiro at the interval, who played a first half that was almost as ineffective as that of his Flamengo club mate Gabriel Barbosa in the previous game against Peru. Both are fine players, and could be useful to the cause, but it will not do them and the local public any harm to have a reality check.
Some in the Brazilian media could do with the same. There have been murmurs of discontent about the work of Tite. Brazil’s current superiority against their continental rivals is being taken as a given but that is not how it looked five years ago, and it would do everyone good to remember that.
Tite took over when Dunga had been sacked; Brazil had just been eliminated in the group phase of the Copa America, finishing behind Peru and Ecuador. And, after a third of the Russia 2018 qualifiers, they were down in sixth place and in danger of missing out on the World Cup for the first time ever. Winning — at least against the other South Americans — has become such a habit since then that Brazilians are in danger of taking it for granted.
Tite (who was fined $5,000 on Thursday for his criticism of Brazil’s hosting of the Copa America amid the COVID-19 pandemic) is in danger of becoming a victim of his own success, though he is well aware that the real mark of success and failure will come against the western Europeans in Qatar at the end of next year.
Edinson Cavani is a force of nature
Uruguay’s 2-0 win over Bolivia was sealed with Cavani’s 52nd international goal — an extraordinary figure from someone who has never been his country’s leading striker. Up until 2014, Cavani was playing third fiddle behind both Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. Since then, Suarez has been king of the hill.
This might be expected to generate tensions, as top strikers need to be selfish, but year-after-year it works. Some of the credit has to go to coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, a trained teacher who makes a point of disseminating humanist values in the ranks, but it could not function properly without the sacrifice of Cavani — a player described by Tabarez a decade ago as “the perfect son in law.”
Against Bolivia, Tabarez wanted to have a look at playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta in his favourite role, as an old fashioned No. 10 behind the central striker. To accommodate the change, Cavani had to spend some of his time wide on the left — just as he used to in the days of Forlan and Suarez.
In the second half, De Arrascaeta was replaced by Facundo Torres, who went to the left flank to supply the low cross which allowed Cavani to kill off the game. But still the Manchester United striker was not finished. In second-half stoppage-time he berated himself for mistiming a header from a corner, worked back in his own penalty area to win possession, and was involved in the build up to a move which ended with Maxi Gomez shooting wide in front of an open goal.
Gomez will have the task of replacing Cavani after the next World Cup. He has some big boots to step into.
Who is going home early?
One of the most basic rules of tournaments is they can’t be won in the group phase. But they can be lost — even in the Copa America, where only two of the 10 teams bid farewell to the competition before the knockout games begin.
In one group, that unhappy position has already been decided. Bolivia have no hopes of making progress after three defeats and their game against Argentina on Monday is nothing more than preparation for the resumption of World Cup qualification in September.
In the other group, Brazil are 100% and Colombia are over the line, leaving a last-day battle between Ecuador and Venezuela, with Peru also involved. Both Ecuador and Venezuela have two points. Ecuador have the better goal difference but they face Brazil; Venezuela, meanwhile, take on Peru and may finally be able to put out something closer to a full strength side after having so many out with COVID-19. A Venezuela win would leapfrog them over Peru, but the Peruvians would only be in danger of early elimination in the unlikely event of Ecuador pulling off a shock win over Brazil.
That Peru are in such relative comfort is largely down to the wonderful work of coach Ricardo Gareca, who keeps doing well with the limited resources at his disposition. Peruvian football is not helping — the only new player to make an impact since the World Cup three years ago is Gianluca Lapadula, a 31-year-old Italian.
Venezuela, too, have over-achieved. Already without key centre-forward Salomon Rondon, a COVID-19 outbreak also deprived the team of all of its quick wingers for the first three games. They could do little more than defend with dignity, and they have done it well enough to claim two draws.
Ecuador should have beaten them and Peru as well. Ecuador’s is a tale of under-achievement, missed opportunities and expensive lapses of concentration. Coach Gustavo Alfaro has mystifyingly persevered with a teenage centre-back, Pedro Hincapie, whose promise does not yet make him ready for this level; Xavier Arreaga, probably his best defender, has spent the tournament on the bench. It will be interesting to see if he comes in for the game against Brazil, but it may well be too late to save Venezuela from an early exit.