On one side it's Brazil and Argentina, each looking to exorcise past demons and prove a point. On the other, it's Chile and Peru, bordering, west coast nations whose history goes well beyond the pitch. The Copa America semifinals will bring out the ferocity of the South American game.
The semifinals of this summer’s bewilderingly unpredictable Copa America are finally set, and with places in the final on the line, the theme of this competition takes an even more dramatic turn. The remaining fixtures, after three VAR-influenced scoreless draws ended in pressure-packed penalties, are among the two most heated rivalries on the continent.
One on side of the bracket there's the South American Superclásico: Brazil against Argentina, a fixture older than Copa America itself. The tension and animosity between both has always been an important part of their rivalry. From their 1990 World Cup encounter (when Argentina won 1-0 and Brazil’s Branco accused the Argentine coaching staff of being given a bottle of water containing tranquillizers while dealing with an injured player) to the racist incidents in 1937 (when Brazilian players, worried for their safety, were forced to leave the stadium before the final whistle) and much more beyond, this fixture is littered with history.
The last time the two met was October 2018 for a friendly in Saudi Arabia, where Miranda scored a stoppage-time winner in a 1-0 Brazil victory. That game did not feature Lionel Messi (due to his post-World Cup break from the national team) and was obviously held in very different circumstances. Despite all of its issues, Argentina can at least claim to be one of only two teams to have beaten the host nation since Tite joined in 2016 (it came in a June 2017 friendly in Australia). But past accomplishments mean very little in a tournament that is currently so unpredictable.
Argentina’s Copa America campaign started with a flat, uninspiring loss to Colombia, but Messi & Co. did enough to get out of the group. In the quarterfinals against an in-form Venezuela, Lionel Scaloni’s side looked slightly better and was able to contain its opponent’s pacey attackers and the strong hold up play of Salomon Rondon. The veteran, popular Franco Armani was once again a reliable force in goal, showing leadership and poise throughout the game. In the end, La Albiceleste won 2-0 thanks to a wonderful goal from Lautaro Martinez and an opportunistic one from Giovanni Lo Celso, but the squad is still waiting for its star and captain to truly shine. Despite showing glimpses of his genius, Messi has only scored one goal, a penalty against Paraguay, and has admitted he’s underperforming at Copa America. If there’s a game that can perhaps bring out his very best, it is a battle against Brazil at the Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte.
“It’s difficult to pick a favorite between Argentina and Brazil, and even more so in this tournament where everything seems very even,” Messi said after Friday’s win. “They’re the hosts, have to show up in front of their fans and arrive with a project that’s been in the works for a while, with the same coach and the same ideas.”
Messi knows his comments not only highlight Brazil’s strengths but also point out Argentina’s main weakness, which is a lack of cohesion and fluidity in the squad. There was an improvement against Venezuela, but in this semifinal Argentina needs be even better.
Brazil, meanwhile, returns to a stadium that hosted the team’s darkest memories in another semifinal: the 7-1 destruction at the hands of Germany in the 2014 World Cup. Tite knows that Brazilians will look at this game against Argentina as a chance, in part, to redeem itself and restore a sense of national pride as it strives to lift the trophy on home soil.
Against Paraguay, Brazil fought hard against an opponent that was determined to frustrate the Seleção. The plan worked, with Paraguay, even down to 10 men for over half an hour, able to escape Brazil’s onslaught–with an assist to VAR–taking the Seleçao to a penalty shootout. In the end, Brazil prevailed, as the dependable and indispensable Alisson Becker remained dominant in goal.
An exciting matchup will be on the flank, with Brazilian winger Everton Soares looking to take full advantage against Argentina and Tottenham defender Juan Foyth, who had a good game against Venezuela. Foyth usually does a good job at tracking his opposing number and closing down spaces, but Everton provides a different type of headache.
Speaking of headaches, can anyone shake off Chile? Amazingly, the two-time defending champions are in the final four after a resilient performance against Colombia, who was tipped to win it all after winning every game in the group stage. Few saw this coming. Chile entered Copa America yet to discover its identity under Reinaldo Rueda–a team caught in transition from a core of aging veterans who failed to secure a place in last summer's World Cup. Thanks to the veteran leadership of those players–Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Alexis Sanchez among them–Chile was able to outsmart and outlast its opponents. No other team demonstrates the characteristics needed to perform in a summer tournament better than Chile, as it’s able to identity and nullify an opponent’s strengths. If the strategy is to go wide, Chile will force you to play narrow. If the aim is to focus on quick possession, Chile will drag out the minutes, be more direct and physical and frustrate your midfield until your manager is forced to use a different strategy. Masters of the Copa America penalty shootout after winning the last two titles in such a manner, Chile has proven difficult to dethrone.
Now comes its biggest foe, Peru. Thanks to the disciplined and versatile coaching of Ricardo Gareca, it was able to shake off the 5-0 embarrassment in the group finale vs. Brazil and press the reset button. Against Uruguay, La Blanquirroja showed quality in possession and defensive organization and benefited from a little luck, as VAR intervened three times after Uruguay thought it had scored through Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Giorgian de Arrascaeta, only to see those goals taken off the board.
But fortune, as they say, favors the brave, and thanks to some clinical finishing in the shootout, and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese’s heroics in saving Luis Suarez’s opening spot kick, Peru won in penalties and booked its ticket to the semifinals.
The Clasico del Pacifico (The Pacific Derby) is a rivalry that lives way beyond soccer, as both sides often see this match as a way to refuel tensions that deal with border disputes and political animosity against the backdrop of a 19th-century war aptly called War of the Pacific.
The simple truth is that both managers will require very little in order to motivate their players, and, if anything, the harder task will be to control what should be an emotional, physical game.
Tactically, Chile will most likely focus on frustrating Paolo Guerrero, who will lead the front line in a 4-2-3-1 system. Peru’s attention, meanwhlie, will be on the midfield, as Renato Tapia and Yoshimar Yotun should be prepared for a physical battle against the likes of Charles Aranguiz and Erick Pulgar.
Given the historical and cultural significance of the respective rivalries and what these fixtures mean to these nations and their fans, predicting the outcome and who will come out victorious is a tough task. If there's one certainty, it's that they'll all entertain–and ideally score some goals.