EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — David Ospina, believe it or not, had been here before.
Just nine days short of a year ago, the Colombian goalkeeper started between the sticks in a Copa America quarterfinal against a tournament favorite. And just like he did on Friday, Ospina made two hugely important saves for his team as it looked to secure a semifinal berth. Both times, the game went to penalty kicks.
The difference? One year ago Colombia lost on penalties to Argentina, despite Ospina’s incredible double-save on Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. On Friday at MetLife Stadium a crowd of just under 80,000 watched him deliver his team a semifinal berth–a 4-2 triumph on PKs after a 0-0 draw–where they will meet Chile or Mexico on Wednesday in Chicago.
“We always want to win. That’s what drives us,” Colombia manager Jose Pekerman told reporters via translator after the game. “Today we can talk about some way in which we failed, but I credit our opponent and I think we deservedly took the win even if it was on penalty kicks.”
The first of Ospina’s stops came at the very end of a hectic, intensely physical 90 minutes. Mostly unchallenged up to that point, the Arsenal goalkeeper was able to react in an instant to Peru defender Christian Ramos’s powerful close-range header, parrying it over the bar to the exasperation of a raucous crowd.
His second save came exactly seven kicks later: Christian Cueva’s awful, useless corner kick to end regulation, then five made penalty kicks before Peru’s Miguel Trauco stepped up with a chance to tie the shootout at 3-3. Like his teammate Renato Tapia who kicked before him, Trauco sent his effort down the middle with power. But while Ospina was fooled by Tapia’s effort, Trauco’s had no such effect. Ospina seemingly read the flight of the ball as it rocketed towards him from 12 yards out, extending his foot for a fine save that gave Colombia a leg up for the first time.
“The intense challenge that Peru posed to us, to us, it is something very positive,” Pekerman said. “We really do need to experience situations like this in order to improve and to grow.”
The first half unfolded in fits and starts, seemingly always under the threat of imminent stoppage. A foul here, a minor injury there. An extra ball on the field. Another few seconds drained setting up for a set piece.
When the ball actually did get into play, the result rarely resembled beautiful soccer. Peru spent the opening minutes flying into every challenge, sanguine about the fact that those fouls gave up free kicks to Colombia in dangerous positions. This turned out to be the right idea: instead of whipping the ball into the bow, Colombia always took their set pieces short and quickly, and generated nothing from them.
Obstacles remained for Colombia, even away from the tenacious defense on the flanks. Peru’s central midfield duo of Tapia and Oscar Vilchez worked together to clog every available passing lane in the middle, and in large part it worked.
The few times that Tapia and Vilchez allowed themselves to get sucked out of position, however, James Rodriguez was there to take advantage. In the 22nd minute, the Real Madrid star turned inside of Tapia, and charged headlong into the space that was previously so scarce. The angle to shoot at goal was tight, and Rodriguez’s effort would require a significant portion of swerve to get on target. He didn’t get enough and the ball ricocheted off the inside of the post and across the goal line. It would be as close as any team would come to scoring until Ospina’s heroics.
“In the first half, we could have scored, and if we had maybe now were talking about a different type of match,” Pekerman said. “Tonight what weighed us down is that we faced more of an obligation to attack, looking to do a great many things. Sometimes we weren’t able to deliver that.”
The same physicality remained in the second half, but this time there seemed to be more venom in the challenges. It also finally elicited a reaction from referee Patricio Loustau, who issued the game’s first yellow card in the 63rd minute for a Tapia foul that, by the standard of the rest of the game, was comparatively weak. True to that same standard, the resulting free kick presented a great opportunity, but came to nothing.
Each team continued to have its rough moments. Peru’s sloppy giveaways in the defensive third nearly cost them when Carlos Bacca found his way through on goal in the 69th minute, but he was offside on the play, and compounded the seeming uselessness of the effort by sliding into goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, a collision that left both players lying down with questionably severe injuries (both finished the game with no apparent issues).
On the opposite end, a Colombian giveaway sent Peru substitute Cristian Benavente in on goal, but though he was taken down on his way into the box, the foul came outside the 18-yard box and his penalty appeal was correctly denied. The resulting free kick, true to form, went nowhere in particular.
That was the last major action before Ospina’s palmed stop at the death, forcing a corner kick that Cueva hit about as badly as one can hit any corner kick, let alone one at the end of a major tournament’s quarterfinal. The ball sailed harmlessly over the endline, never even threatening the goal.
It bore frightening similarity to Cueva’s next, and last action in the game. The man who had mocked Colombian players’ celebration dances in the lead-in to the game possessed a chance to keep Peru alive in the shootout after Ospina’s save. But like his corner kick, Cueva fired his shot well high and wide of the bar.
Ospina jumped in the air, pumped his fists, and dropped to his knees as his teammates tackled him, first the starters, then the substitutes, one after another, building a pile of joyous humanity. Ospina, one year after suffering a PK loss, was at the center of all of it.