Just a few short days ago, the mere feat of reaching the Copa América knock-out stages looked uncertain. The Argentina team were dishevelled, having opened their campaign in Brazil with defeat and a draw, and many were steeling themselves for what would have been a catastrophic elimination in the group stages.
The wonderful thing about the game of football, however, is that all can change in an instant. From the pits of despair Lionel Scaloni’s men have clawed back to win through to the semi-finals, where they have set up a tantalising clash against none other than hosts Brazil.
Standing in their way yesterday were Venezuela, which had many reasons to be confident going into their match against the Albiceleste. The Vinotinto had beaten their more illustrious rivals as recently as March in a friendly, and advanced unbeaten and conceding just a single goal in Group A while Argentina squeezed through thanks to victory over Qatar.
Manager Rafael Dudamel’s game-plan was built on one assumption: that Lionel Messi and Co. would come at them right from the start and leave ample space behind for a deep-set Venezuela to exploit on the counter. The coach was right, but nevertheless saw his strategy unravel after less than ten minutes thanks to a wonderful intervention from Lautaro Martinez, the young Inter forward who is fast becoming Argentina’s star of the Copa.
Lautaro had the speed of thought to divert Sergio Agüero’s speculative shot towards the goal with his heel, a move that fooled goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez and allowed Argentina to take an invaluable early lead. Forced to come out of their shell by that blow, Venezuela tried to fight back into the game but largely without success, not least because of a gigantic performance at rightback from fellow new boy Juan Foyth; while inspired by Martínez’s inter ventions Scaloni’s men looked likeliest to add to the scoreline.
“We played an incredible first half,” the goalscorer beamed after the match. “We are showing we give our all in every match.” Indeed, effort was not lacking from the Argentina side across the ninety minutes, although captain Lionel Messi is still far from his normal self in Brazil. The old worries about their fragility, however, still remain.
The decision to substitute Lautaro and Marcos Acúña – both had picked up yellow cards, the only reason possible for such a call – left Argentina momentarily groggy and lost on the field, and Venezuela did all they could to take full advantage. If it were not for Franco Armani, who saved from Salomón Rondón at point blank at the height of Vinotinto dominace after the break, the story in the Maracaná could have been quite different.
As it was, an outrageous stroke of fortune eventually sealed Argentina’s win. Faríñez, one of the world’s finest young keepers, somehow contrived to spill Agüero’s straightforward shot into the path of an onrushing Giovani Lo Celso, who made it 2-0 with just over fifteen minutes left on the clock. It was mainly plain sailing from that point onwards, although Venezuela strived to the very last second to turn the tables and rob fans of what will be a blockbuster Superclásico de las Américas in the semis. Not since 2007’s Copa América have South America’s two giants met in a major tournament and the hype for Tuesday’s clash is likely to reach stratospheric proportions.
Can Argentina spring what would be a huge upset on the Copa hosts? Both individually and as a team Brazil are far superior to their neighbours right now, having waltzed through to the last four without conceding a single goal. Perhaps, though, that may just play into Argentina’s favour.
Making this stage at all was
thought the upper limit of the
Albiceleste’s Copa aspirations;
from now they have nothing to
lose. If the likes of Martínez,
Rodrigo De Paul, Foyth and the
rest of Scaloni’s team can continue to impress and Messi
plays how we all know he is
capable, Brazil might just endure a difficult ninety minutes
when the two sides meet.