A lot can change in just a couple of days at a major tournament. Going into the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario, Chile’s chances of retaining its title appeared slim. The winners of its first ever senior international title 12 months ago, Chile had been outclassed by Argentina in its opening game of the competition and required a penalty deep, deep into injury time against arguably the weakest team in South America, Bolivia, to win its second. While a 4-2 victory over Panama to seal progress to the last eight had seen an improvement, it still came with two blunders from goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and a general lack of conviction about its defensive performance.
After the departure of the mastermind of the country’s 2015 success, Jorge Sampaoli, it appeared that the team had taken a significant step backward. There were severe doubts that Sampaoli’s replacement, Juan Antonio Pizzi, was up to the task.
What came next has caused for a major reassessment of both the direction of this Chile team and the status of the man in charge. On Saturday night in Santa Clara, California, Chile stunningly eviscerated Mexico 7-0 to match its biggest victory ever in the Copa America and inflict Mexico’s worst ever competitive loss.
This was the devastating Chile of old, the one which had been set on its course to becoming one of the world’s most thrilling teams in full flight by Marcelo Bielsa and subsequently refined under Sampaoli. It was a devastating performance to expose the shortcomings of a Mexico team that went into the game unbeaten in 22 matches. Eduardo Vargas continued to save his best for the Chilean red, netting four times, while 30-year-old Edson Puch grabbed his first two goals for his country. The superb Alexis Sánchez added another. The only disappointment was a second booking of the tournament for Arturo Vidal that now rules him out of the semifinals and a muscle problem that saw key holding midfielder Marcelo Díaz taken off.
Still, in 90 minutes Chile had transformed from a team in decline to one seemingly determined to keep its grasp on the Copa America title. Immediately Pizzi’s team has been made favorite for its semifinal match with Colombia. However, it is a tag that Vargas says his team wants no part of.
“We don't consider ourselves the favorites,'' the Hoffenheim player told a pre-match press conference.
“We had a good game against Mexico and we know how tough Colombia is. The match against Mexico is in the past. Now we're thinking about Colombia, how we're going to go up against them, how we're going to attack, how we can win the match.”
While Chile’s prospects look dramatically improved on the basis of its quarterfinal performance, Colombia appeared to have taken a step back. Quarterfinalists at the last World Cup and ranked third in the world by FIFA, José Pékerman’s team had little trouble brushing aside the United States and Paraguay to begin the group stage. Even a 3-2 defeat to Costa Rica didn’t appear a major setback given that Pékerman rested a host of players with qualification for the last eight already secured.
But, with the likes of James Rodríguez, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado back in the lineup for the quarterfinals, Colombia allowed itself to be bogged down by Peru in a match that failed to do justice to the more than 80,000 fans who sold out MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. In a game characterized by cynical fouls and even more cynical play-acting, Colombia survived thanks to two saves from David Ospina, one at the death of regulation time and another in a penalty shootout, before Peru’s Christian Cueva struck the decisive penalty into the night sky.
Still, rather than the failure of his attacking stars to hit the heights, Pékerman preferred to focus afterward on his team’s ability to get through a battle.
“Today we can talk about some areas where we failed, technically, but our team needs to experience situations like this in order to improve and to grow,” he said in the post-match press conference. “In some instances when things didn't go their way, coming out to the matches and looking to win, with the intense challenge that Peru posed to us is something very positive. The talent will come out more later on and will improve.”
It promises to be a very different type of match at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Wednesday. The last six meetings between the sides, dating back to 2008, have produced 24 goals. While Chile has the better all-time record, Colombia has not lost in the last three meetings, winning in Santiago in the last World Cup qualifying cycle and getting a draw there last November.
Prediction: If Chile plays as it did against Mexico then it will be hard to stop. Colombia, however, should put up considerably more resistance. Much of Chile’s success against Mexico was down to the wide open spaces through the middle, but Colombia should block those off by lining up just at it did against Peru, with the shield of Carlos Sánchez alongside Daniel Torres in front of the back four. Expect Colombia to be happy for Chile to come at it, before aiming to exploit the gaps left on the break. With Cuadrado and James, Pékerman’s team certainly has the pace and quality to trouble Chile. Given Colombia also has a defense that is less than watertight, there is the prospect of goals and an end-to-end battle. In such a closely matched contest, the loss of Vidal and a potentially compromised Diaz could be decisive. At the end it may again come down to penalties, with the in-form Ospina potentially the hero once again.
Predicted Score: Chile 2-2 Colombia (Colombia to win on penalties)