VIÑA DEL MAR, Chile — The bare facts are that Argentina reached the semifinals of the Copa America, defeating Colombia in penalty kicks (5–4) after a goalless draw, but that hardly tells the full story of the match.
It had been an astonishing game, which Argentina had dominated almost from start to finish without being able to score. David Ospina, the Colombia goalkeeper, made a number of fine saves, chances were missed, the woodwork was struck twice and, even when Carlos Tevez got by all those obstacles with two minutes to go, Jeison Murillo was on hand to hook the ball clear.
When Luis Muriel skied his penalty high over the bar, Argentina appeared to be on its way, but Lucas Biglia, with a chance to win it, missed the target. Sergio Romero then saved from Juan Camilo Zuniga, but Marcos Rojo clipped the top of the bar. Murillo then also fired his shot far too high, leaving Tevez, the third Argentine with a chance to win it and the player who had missed against Uruguay in the team's quarterfinal defeat four years ago, finally to take Argentina through.
Here are three thoughts on Friday's game:
Pekerman finally drops Falcao
Jose Pekerman’s love for Radamel Falcao is finite, after all. Having named him as captain before the tournament, it had seemed that Pekerman would stick by him, but there was little in the group stage to suggest that Falcao was worth his place. He has been sluggish, lacking the acceleration that characterized him at his peak and, perhaps most significantly, his presence has affected the whole shape of the team.
Since a 1–0 defeat to Venezuela in qualifying for the last World Cup, Pekerman hasn’t trusted Falcao to play as a lone striker, but to play him in a pair is necessarily to curtail the role of James Rodriguez. It’s no coincidence that Rodriguez’s form at Monaco in 2013-14 picked up significantly after Falcao was injured. The two simply haven’t worked out a way of playing together, and that’s an issue that prevented Colombia in the group stage from living up to the heights it reached at the World Cup.
Eventually, Falcao, who had been substituted in his last two games, had to be dropped, replaced by new Atletico Madrid signing Jackson Martinez. Colombia began on Friday with a 4-4-2 with Martinez and Teo Gutierrez together up front and an attacking midfield in which Alexander Mejia was the only defensive presence. By the midway point of the first half, though, Pekerman had been forced to make a change, withdrawing Gutierrez for Edwin Cardona to try to bolster a midfield that was being overrun.
It didn’t really work: Again and again, the Colombian back four was left exposed to the runs of Messi, Javier Pastore and Angel Di Maria. That’s not to say leaving Falcao out was the wrong decision, more that the loss of Carlos Sanchez and Edwin Valencia (and before the tournament Abel Aguukar) was decisive.
Falcao did end up coming on with 19 minutes remaining, replacing Martinez—and being given the captain’s armband straightaway by Rodriguez. By then, Argentina had begun to tire, and the deeper deployment of the two wide men and Cardona had given Colombia a base in midfield from which to repel Argentina.
More Copa questionable refereeing
Not for the first time in this tournament, the referee was rather more prominent than desirable.
Within the first 20 minutes, Roberto Garcia had booked both Rodriguez and Sergio Aguero for protesting about fouls not given either to them or their teams, which is usually a positive sign—that of a referee willing to impose his authority, as there is nothing less conducive to the efficient running of a game than players who believe they can influence a referee. But the problem was that both Rodriguez and Aguero seemed to have a point.
Garcia was overly lenient on some robust tackling, particularly on Messi.
It’s one thing to ensure divers don’t prosper, quite another to insist on major assault before giving a free kick. Garcia let too much go and yet still booked four Colombians before halftime, and Falcao late on, a sure indication of their failure to handle the pace and movement of Argentina. He also cautioned three Argentines, evidence perhaps of their frustration at the physicality of Colombia. After Juan Cuadrado, who had already been booked, clattered into Rojo, Garcia responded by sending Argentina assistant coach Jorge Pautsasso from the touchline—the easy way out.
Ospina heroic in goal in losing effort
Although Colombia defended better in the second half, there was only one reason it was still in the game for as long as it was: Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina.
This was his game before it was anyone else’s. He started as early as the fifth minute, making a smart low save to push wide a shot from Pastore that flicked off Murillo. He then made a remarkable double save to keep out an Aguero effort with his feet before recovering to swat away Messi’s follow-up header. Ospina dominated his box, charging out to clear a Messi through ball from the path of Di Maria shortly after halftime.
With eight minutes to go, he made a stunning reflex save to push a Nicolas Otamendi header against the post. Colombia may have ultimately lost, but it would have been nowhere close without Ospina.