James Young
Tuesday June 30th, 2015

The Copa America produced another tense, gripping contest on Monday night as Chile sneaked past a brave, battling Peru, 2–1. Peru coach Ricardo Gareca and his team were given little chance of success at this tournament, but have performed admirably throughout the competition. Los Incas pushed Chile all the way on Monday night, even after Eduardo Vargas’s stunning long-range effort put the host ahead for good just after the hour mark.

That strike came just three minutes after Chile’s Gary Medel own goal provided Peru an equalizer. And for a while it seemed as though Peru, down to 10 men after Carlos Zambrano had been sent off after just 19 minutes, might even spring an upset with the fast, powerful Paolo Guerrero troubling the Chile defense all night.

In the end, however, Chile’s numerical advantage and the constant movement and energy of players such as Alexis Sanchez and Jorge Valdivia proved just too much for Peru. Now, La Roja will wait to discover whether it will play Argentina or Paraguay, which meet in the other semifinal, in Saturday’s eagerly anticipated final.

• Watch: Vargas saves Chile with incredible strike from distance

Gareca and his players, however, can go home with their heads held high after an impressive display at this tournament restored some needed pride. His squad can now look forward to the South American World Cup qualifying campaign, which gets underway in October, with cautious optimism.   

Here are three thoughts on Monday's game:

Chile’s revolving stars strike again

In keeping with Jorge Sampaoli’s team and system focused beliefs, one of the key features of Chile’s run to the final has been the way several players have come to the forefront when the side has needed them most. Alexis Sanchez produced terrific performances in the opening game against Ecuador and Bolivia. Then, when his legs seemed to tire, understandable after a long first season in the Premier League, Arturo Vidal was there to step up, scoring twice and winning the man of the match award in the thrilling 3–3 draw with Mexico.

And with the tension growing in the quarterfinal against Uruguay, it was Jorge Valdivia who seized the mettle, delivering a vivacious attacking performance and settingup Mauricio Isla’s winner with a neat slipped pass.

Chile’s salvation this evening came from a most unlikely source (only a cynic would mention the name of Venezuelan referee Jose Argote at this point). Striker Eduardo Vargas has had an odd few years since moving from Universidad de Chile (where he played under his current national team coach Sampaoli) to Napoli at the end of 2011. He’s bounced out on loan to teams in Spain, Brazil and England, and has also had a quiet tournament here, full of eager running but looking largely inconsequential compared to the stars like Vidal, Sanchez, Valdivia and tidy midfielder Charles Aranguiz.

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History repeats itself as Paraguay upsets Brazil in Copa quarterfinals

With his teammates thwarted by some sturdy Peruvian defending (when not overcomplicating matters themselves), however, Monday was Vargas’s big chance—and he seized it with both hands, breaking the deadlock by sliding the ball home after an Aranguiz dummy had allowed a curled cross from Alexis Sanchez to hit the post.

If that goal had a touch of good fortune about it, there was nothing lucky about Vargas’s glorious second half winner, however. Picking up the ball far from goal on the right side of the pitch, he took a few steps forward and crashed a stunning, curling shot up and over the admirable Pedro Gallese in the Peru goal and into the net. The crowd, and Vargas, went wild.

After Brazil and Neymar’s unhappy Copa America, much has been made at this tournament of the dangers of relying overly on one player. If Chile’s revolving door of talent can continue to spin for just one more game, the country may yet taste the Copa America glory it so thirsts after on Saturday.

One small moment undoes Peru

One of the subtle pleasures of soccer is identifying the importance of small, often forgotten moments. The key incident of this game was arguably not Eduardo Vargas’s opening goal or second half winner, or a key save from Gallese in the Peru goal or from Claudio Bravo at the other end. It was possibly not even Peru’s tough tackling central defender Carlos Zambrano’s 19th-minute sending off for rashly leaving his leg high after a clearance, and kicking Vargas in the back.

Zambrano’s red, in fact, was the end result of the chain of events that began with what was arguably the game’s key “what if?” incident. That came in the 4th minute, when the same player tangled with that shy, retiring violet of the Chile midfield, Arturo Vidal. There was a brief moment of pushing and shoving, and then Vidal raised his hand to Zambrano’s jaw and pushed the Peru player’s head backwards. In strength and intent it was clearly a more serious crime than Edinson Cavani’s (admittedly foolish) brushing of Gonzalo Jara’s face in Chile’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay, for which Cavani received a red card (and as we know now, the Uruguay forward had acted under extreme provocation).

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Argentina outlasts Colombia in PKs in heart-stopping Copa quarterfinal

Instead of issuing a card here, however, the referee decided to be lenient, giving both players a lecture, and any bad feeling seemed to have passed when Vidal and Zambrano shook hands afterwards. It is impossible, however, for the spectator or journalist to know what passes through an athlete’s mind at any given moment. In a game like this, when notoriously bad traveler Peru was taking on one of its most bitter rivals in front of a hostile crowd in the semifinal of an already volatile tournament, the bad blood can show. History between the two countries includes a 19th century war and an ongoing maritime dispute, and here the stadium announcer asked the fans not to boo the Peruvian anthem before kickoff.

Zambrano certainly seemed to be affected by the Vidal incident. Just a few minutes later he received a yellow card for dissent, and 15 minutes after that he was on his way to the dressing room after going through Vargas. It was a tragedy for Peru, which had looked the better team up until that point. Carlos Lobaton and Josepmir Ballon worked hard to clog up Chile’s passing in midfield, and the powerful Paolo Guerrero and eager Jefferson Farfan worried the home defense on the break.

Ricardo Gareca’s side continued to battle after Zambrano’s sending off, and even after Vargas had opened the scoring, forcing an equalizer when Gary Medel put through his own goal after a dangerous cross from fullback Luis Advincula. Peru gave as good as it got for much of the second half too, and only seemed to run out of steam after Vargas’s exhilarating second goal.

Few gave Peru much chance of succeeding at this tournament, but the team has been marvelously coached by Gareca, in charge for only three months, and gave Chile the fright of its life here. Had Zambrano not been sent off, or had Vidal been punished before him, it might have been a different story entirely. 

Refereeing inconsistency continues to dog Copa America

As described above, there was apparently little to separate the unpunished hand to face contact of Arturo Vidal at the beginning of this game and the clash between Edinson Cavani and Gonzalo Jara in the Chile-Uruguay quarterfinal tie, when Cavani walked but Jara didn’t. Despite his later petulance, it is also easy to sympathize with Neymar’s complaint that he was booked for wiping away the referee’s free-kick “vanishing spray” in the group stage game against Peru while a Colombia player went unpunished for doing the same thing when playing Brazil.

• Report: U.S. to battle Peru in friendly at RFK Stadium in September

Then there was the startlingly lenient performance by Mexico’s Roberto Garcia, the referee of last Friday’s Colombia-Argentina quarterfinal, who let a number of brutal Colombian challenges go unpunished. “This isn’t Europe, this is America and this is how we play here,” the referee reportedly told a complaining Lionel Messi after the game.

In a tournament known for the volatile rivalries between its competing teams (witness the semi-brawls between Colombia and Brazil, and Chile and Uruguay, for example), the Copa America referees have needed to be strong and consistent. In fact they have largely been neither, and as a result an unruly, slightly unpleasant atmosphere has been allowed to fester. Inconsistent decisions have appeared to favor certain teams (notably the host, Chile) and dangerous tackles have gone unpunished. Let’s hope that the tournament reaches its end without a player suffering serious injury. 

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