This past weekend Uruguay defeated Paraguay 3-0 to clinch a record breaking 15th Copa America title. It was a fully deserved win as they played by far the better football and they have laid a marker down for their South American rivals with World Cup qualifying due to begin soon.
Eventual champions Uruguay had been the first team to reach the final, beating Peru 2-0 in Tuesday’s semi-final. At times the Peruvian’s seemed overwhelmed by the occasion and although it was goalless at half time, Uruguay always looked in control. A brace from the impressive Luis Suarez clinched the win. Any hopes of a Peru comeback were dashed after a moment of madness from their skipper, Juan Manuel Vargas sent off for an elbow on Sebastian Coates (eventual winner of the Young Player of the Tournament and a defender with a bright future) right in front of the referee.
Paraguay meanwhile had made it to the final after their penalty win over Venezuela on Wednesday. Venezuela made a slow start but seemed to have the bit between their teeth as they seemed far more intent on making something happen. Both keepers made vital saves but there were few clear cut chances. Despite having Santana sent off in extra time Paraguay held firm and Justo Villar was again their hero in the shoot-out. Villar’s save from Lucena was the decisive moment, although it was left to Dario Veron to clinch it with his spot kick.
An ugly brawl between both players and officials of both teams erupted at the end, taking several minutes to calm down. The resulting touchline bans for their manager, Gerardo Martino and his deputy cannot have helped Paraguay’s final preparations. A final they had made it into without winning a game in regulation or even extra time!
Third v Fourth play-off
Saturday saw Peru take on Venezuela in the 3rd place play-off. Peru triumphed 4-1, tournament top scorer Jose Paolo Guerrero the hat trick hero, but this flattered Peru slightly. It was Venezuela who had looked livelier when Chiroque gave Peru the lead late in the first half after a break away. Venezuela’s Tomas Rincon was then harshly sent off just before the hour to make his team’s task even harder. Guerrero soon doubled Peru’s lead with his first of the game but their opponents were not done. Juan Arango pulled a goal back on 78 minutes, coolly finishing with the outside of his left foot after Orozco’s peach of a through ball. Cichero then had a chance to level the game but blazed wide with the goal at his mercy. Guerrero punished this in the last minute and deep into stoppage time, two precise finishes sealing his hat trick and Peru’s 3rd place.
So, to El Monumental for the final. The home stadium of River Plate has only just been patched up after the vandalism resulting from River’s first ever relegation from the Primera Division, but was a fitting venue for this match. Fans of both nations packed the stadium for a final that not many would have expected to see.
Uruguay demonstrated that they weren’t ‘one tournament wonders’ with their performances throughout the competition, whereas Paraguay had fumbled their way into this showpiece match. With goalkeeper Justo Villar their outstanding player having not conceded a goal in six hours of football, Paraguay were never likely to be the attacking threat that Uruguay are and never looked like setting the tempo in this match. It was even less likely when their line-up revealed that Lucas Barrios was not fit to start along with a number of other first teamers.
Uruguay didn’t disappoint, taking the initiative from the off, winning four corners in the opening five minutes. Their first corner should have resulted in a penalty and red card; Lugano’s thumping header being well saved by Villar and then Ortigoza played phantom goalkeeper as he handled the follow-up; an incident that was completely missed by the officials gaving Paraguay an early let-off.
That handball drama invoked memories of Luis Suarez’s clanger in last year’s World Cup quarter-final against Ghana, but in stark contrast, this tournament has seen Suarez take the headlines for all the right reasons, correctly being named the Player of the Tournament. Diego Forlan may have hit two of the three goals but Suarez was always the star of the show. His touch and close control allied with great pace and intelligent movement make him an absolute handful for any defender and it was Suarez that opened the scoring. He may have benefited from a couple of deflections – one from the cross that fell to him and the other off the body of Veron from his shot for the goal – but there is no denying the quality he showed faking the right foot shot, before switching to his left, finishing with a solid strike that ended up going in off the post.
Uruguay, inspired by Suarez, continued to dominate, frustrating Paraguay which led to some fractious moments. Uruguay are never to be outdone when tempers start to fray and it was no surprise to see them pick up three yellow cards in the first half.
To their credit Uruguay continued to press on and doubled their lead just before half time. Their second goal was part tenacity / part excellent technique, two traits which epitomise this Uruguay side. The pitbull-like Arevalo robbed the hapless Otigoza and played a superb ball into the path of Forlan. Diego Forlan, with only 1 goal in his last 26 games for club or country had spurned an earlier chance, this time however, he didn’t need to break stride and lashed the ball with his left foot across an unmoved Villar.
Paraguay showed more intent after the interval and almost got back into the game after 54 minutes, Ortigoza (finally getting something right) chipped the ball into the path of Nelson Valdez whose superb volley was tipped onto the bar by Muslera. After another couple of attempts, Paraguay’s efforts seemed to wane a little as if they were accepting their fate.
Uruguay added the coup de grace with a last minute third. It was a beautiful move and goal, Cavani’s sweeping crossfield ball, the cushioned header from Suarez into Forlan’s path and the veteran striker’s emphatic finish, were all fantastic. Moments later the final whistle blew and Uruguay put their name in the record books, moving ahead of Argentina’s 14 Copa America trophy wins.
There are still three years to the next World Cup so Argentina and Brazil have time to find settled sides and systems that work but Uruguay’s re-emergence must be seen as a wakeup call for the South American giants.
Copa America 2011 was a slow burner that finished on a high with many positives to take from it. First and foremost, one thing that FIFA/UEFA must look at immediately is introducing the spray can for free kicks worldwide. Marking the position of the kick and wall is a simple and effective answer to encroachment and time wasting at dead ball situations. It’s never going to be eradicated completely but players can now only steal inches rather than yards in the wall.
Overturning the continents traditional powers can only be a good thing. Peru and the emerging Venezuela, along with Uruguay, have shown that Paraguay’s method of defensive solidity is not the only way and that attacking football can win out, even against such advocates like Brazil.
There were a number of excellent performers throughout, Suarez the obvious one, but also from Uruguay Lugano, Coates and Alvaro Pereira all stood out. Alexis Sanchez for Chile showed exactly why Barcelona were prepared to pay so much for his services. Justo Villar and Dario Veron epitomised Paraguay’s defence. Peru’s Paolo Guerrero showed a lethal touch in front of goal whilst his captain Vargas was quality when he kept his head.
Uruguay only had a short journey home to Montevideo across the River Plate, they arrived there to find the party in full swing, that party, quite rightly, will go on for some time yet.
Follow Stuart on Twitter @Studub. Banter.