There will be no showdown with fierce foes Brazil, but Argentina will need no reminding of the potential pitfalls of underestimating Paraguay in the semifinals of the Copa America. With many already anticipating another edition of one of the world’s greatest and most enduring rivalries, Paraguay, not for the first time in this competition, spoiled things by upsetting Brazil on penalties in the quarterfinals. The team that finished at the bottom of South American qualifying for the 2014 World Cup is now just a win away from reaching a second successive Copa America final.
Just as four years ago in Argentina, Paraguay’s success has been built around being extremely difficult to beat. In 2011, Paraguay failed to win a single game inside 90 minutes throughout the tournament yet made it all the way to the final before their resistance finally broke against Uruguay. This time in Chile, Paraguay have won just one of their four games, narrowly beating unheralded Jamaica 1-0, but they have frustrated Uruguay, as well as Argentina and Brazil.
When Brazil took a 15th-minute lead in Concepción, few will have given Paraguay much hope of turning the quarterfinal around. Instead, Derlis Gonzalez equalized from the penalty spot with 18 minutes remaining before he scored the decisive kick in the shootout as Paraguay held their nerve for the better. It was the second straight Copa America in which Paraguay have beaten Brazil in the quarterfinals on penalties and their third consecutive shootout win in the competition. Thus, Argentina will be well advised to get the job done inside 90 minutes back in Concepción on Tuesday.
That was something that Argentina failed to do at the start of the group stage. The pre-tournament favorites had played superbly to race into a 2-0 half-time lead, but fell away in the second half as Paraguay came back to secure a 2-2 draw. While under new coach Ramón Díaz, Paraguay has focused on being defensively solid, they have also shown great character and ability to come from behind against the three most successful countries in Copa America history.
And few will have believed that heading into the semifinals, Paraguay would have outscored Argentina so far in the competition. Argentina have an arguably unparalleled array of attacking talent, including a forward line of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ángel di María, with Javier Pastore providing creative support. Yet they have managed just four goals in as many games.
Likely, Tata Martino and his team are still wondering quite how they failed to find the net in regulation time against Colombia in the quarterfinals. In what was an otherwise more encouraging performance, Argentina did everything but score, including hitting the woodwork and forcing some sensational saves from Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina. But after a dramatic penalty shootout that quickly went from the sublime to the ridiculous, Carlos Tevez, the man who missed the decisive kick as Argentina exited the Copa America on home soil at the quarterfinal stage four years ago, this time made himself the hero by holding his nerve when it counted.
Tevez is likely to be back on the bench on Tuesday, another sign of Argentina’s incredible depth of talent up front that means Gonzalo Higuain also finds himself on the sidelines and the likes of Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala didn’t even make the squad. Martino is unlikely to change his formula for the semifinals, yet he will be desperate for the goals to start to arrive, not least from his captain. Messi scored a penalty against Paraguay in the group stage but has now gone seven matches without a goal from open play for his country. Paraguay will be hoping to make that eight on Tuesday and continue to defy the odds against South America’s giants.
Prediction: It’s difficult to think that Argentina will continue to have such woes in front of goal and nine times of out of ten their performance against Colombia would have resulted in an emphatic win. Paraguay won’t make it easy and have shown an impressive efficiency going forward, but Argentina have to be backed to prevail.
Predicted score: Argentina over Paraguay, 2-1.