SANTA FE, Argentina -- As Martin Caceres' penalty soared into the top corner and confirmed Uruguay's passage to a fifth successive Copa America semifinal, a sense of disbelief fell over the Estadio Estanislau Lopez.
It wasn't just that Argentina had seemed in control at halftime, or that it had played for 50 minutes against 10 men, or even that it had created far more chances than Uruguay; what will really hurt is the knowledge that this was a largely self-inflicted defeat.
Uruguay rode its luck to an extent but, in extremis, it found a shape and a mode of play that at least offered an opportunity of victory. Yes, it took a superb display from the goalkeeper Nestor Muslera to keep Argentina out, but Sergio Batista's side seemed to be doing everything in its power to minimize its chances of winning.
Having finally found a cohesive formula against Costa Rica, Batista stuck with the same system and the same personnel that had brought a 3-0 win in the final group match. Whereas in its opening two games of the tournament the midfield had seemed flat, dislocated from the forward line with only the shuttling of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez -- too often in the same channel -- to link the two, the addition of Fernando Gago and Angel Di Maria gave a much more natural balance. Javier Mascherano was allowed to sit deep, releasing the two fullbacks to push on, with Gago to the right and a little advanced of him and Di Maria to the left and further forward again.
The result was a natural triangle, creating passing options, and that in turn made Messi, ghosting in from the right, more dangerous. Often, against Bolivia and Colombia, he had had no option but to run with the ball, making it easy for defenders to close him down. Here, defenders always had to be aware where he might offload the ball, and that made it harder to shut him down. He was, again, excellent, although there was a rare moment of irascibility just before halftime when he seemed to flick out a leg after yet another foul.
In a sense, the fouls he drew had almost as big an impact on the game as his cross for Gonzalo Higuain's equalizer. Both Alvaro Pereira and Caceres were fortunate not to collect yellow cards for fouls upon him, and the sense was that a sending off was in the air, just waiting to land on a Uruguayan. It was Diego Perez it settled on, six minutes before halftime, and while neither of his fouls were on Messi, the climate of fouling hardly encouraged the referee Carlos Amarilla to keep his cards in his pocket. Perez could have no complaints; his first yellow, for a foul on Mascherano, could have been a red, and the second was for a cynical block on Gago.
Oscar Washington Tabarez, the Uruguay coach, is not known as El Maestro just because he used to be a school teacher. At the break, he reshuffled. Others might simply have sat men behind the ball, but he presumably reasoned that to do so was to invite pressure and that Messi's genius would prevail if it effectively became a game of defense versus attack. He pulled Arevalo Rios very deep in the middle of midfield, almost as an auxiliary center back, kept his fullbacks relatively high up the pitch and used Luis Suarez as a lone striker, with Diego Forlan linking between him and midfield. With Alvaro Pereira pulled in from the flank to a more central position, Uruguay effectively had no left flank, but given Messi's tendency to drift in from the Argentine right, the only real consequence was that Pablo Zabaleta was given room to advance -- as far as Uruguay was concerned, probably the least of the various possible evils.
Argentina, perhaps a little complacent, played into Uruguay's hands. Diego Milito repeatedly conceded needless free kicks -- why climb on Suarez when he has a significant height and weight advantage? -- which not only gave Uruguay respite, but also posed significant danger. Uruguay's goal had come as Perez followed in after Sergio Romero had parried a Diego Lugano header from a Forlan free kick, and every time the giant center back rumbled forward, he caused panic, his header against the bar in the final minutes of the first half perhaps serving a useful psychological function in reminding Uruguay that, even with a man advantage, this Argentina remains vulnerable.
As it grew frustrated, Argentina committed more and more fouls, and as the card count mounted, it began to feel inevitable that Amarilla would eventually snap and show two to the same player. Almost inevitably, it was Mascherano who saw red, although his second yellow, for a mundane foul on Suarez, was absurdly harsh.
Batista, too, seemed to become impatient. The curse of having an array of attacking talent is the temptation to use all of it. On came Javier Pastore and Carlos Tevez, and Argentina lost its shape. The passing options that had made such a difference against Costa Rica and in the first half, disappeared, and again there was too much direct running, too much vertical play. Argentina had chances, Higuain hitting the post and Muslera making a string of excellent saves -- none better than his double save at the very end of normal time, keeping out a deflected Messi free kick with his foot and recovering to deny Higuain's follow with a brave block.
Tevez, especially, was poor, his running aimless, almost as though being dropped after the draw against Colombia had made him determined it had to be he who scored the winner. As it was, he didn't even score his penalty, Muslera saving to his right. To blame Tevez would be unfair, but a huge part of Argentina's woes in this tournament has been down to Batista's attempts to accommodate his in a team that functions better without him, and you wonder whether his "jugador del pueblo" title will endure.
After 18 years, this was supposed to be the end of Argentina's trophy drought. Even with home advantage, though, Argentina could win only one of four matches, and that against a Costa Rica Under-23 side. Batista may point out that his side hasn't lost in the tournament, and that it was probably a little unfortunate against Uruguay, but the fact is that his side deserved no better. Tabarez ensured his side had the maximum possible chance of winning in the circumstances; Argentina and Batista must know that they were nowhere near their maximum.