EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — On a night when its attacking stars struggled to flourish, goalkeeper David Ospina came up with two decisive saves to take Colombia into the semifinals of the Copa America for the first time since 2004. After keeping out a Peruvian header right at the very end of a scrappy 90 minutes to keep the scores level, the Arsenal stopper then pulled off a spectacular kick-save in the penalty shootout to deny defender Miguel Trauco.
It left 24-year-old Christian Cueva two step up moments later, his face racked with fear, and send the ball high over the crossbar. As Cueva broke down in tera, consoled by teammates and opponents alike, Colombia and the huge waves of yellow-soaked fans at a sold-out MetLife Stadium to celebrate victory and a meeting with either Mexico or Chile next Wednesday.
World Cup quarterfinalists in 2014 and the world’s third-best team according to the FIFA rankings, Colombia came into the game as a clear favorite. Yet Los Cafeteros encountered a Peru side determined to reach the last four of the Copa America for a third straight tournament. Fresh from knocking out Brazil, Peru was eyeing another upset and appeared to decide early on that making the contest less than pleasing on the eye was its best route to the victory.
It proved an effective formula, with Colombia unable to make its talent shine. But the victory in the shootout left coach Jose Pekerman taking the positives from a match that was more battle than beautiful game.
“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. 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.”
From the get go, it was a physical duel, with Peru doing its best to disrupt the free-flowing attacking of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Edwin Cardona. On the other side, rugged midfielder Carlos Sanchez was brought into the Colombia team, in a decision Pekerman suggested was influenced in part by the type of game he was anticipating.
Early on Colombia still managed to carve out chances, looking threatening each time it caught Peru with players ahead of the ball. But, up front, Milan striker Carlos Bacca was having a day to forget, firing wide from an angle in the early going and seeing his touch let him down at crucial moments in the penalty area. The closest Colombia came to a breakthrough came through the man many among the 79,194 crowd wanted to see above all others.
With its best move of the match, Cardona produced a gorgeous layoff into the path of James, who surged infield from the left and struck a right-footed shot that brought a sharp intake of breath as it arrowed for the bottom corner and screams of exasperation as it came back off the inside of the post. Bacca seized upon the rebound, but fired wide.
That was to be a rare moment of influence for Cardona, who Peru coach Ricardo Gareca had made a particular target of his team’s attention.
“Cardona is a very important, brainy player for this team,” he said in his post-match press conference. “We didn't want Colombia to carry out their passing, and we didn't allow Cardona to have influence. The boys did a very good job in that sense.”
Against a usually potentially potent attack, Peru was showing why it had kept two clean sheets from its three games in the group stage and frustrated Brazil into an elimination that had cost coach Dunga his job,
Colombia, though, did not help itself. Despite having the more gifted players in the attacking third, Pekerman’s outfit allowed the game to descend into an increasingly fractious affair. In total there were 30 fouls, with Bacca, Daniel Torres and Farid Diaz all receiving knocks for Colombia, although not ones that Pekerman expects to ruled them out of the semifinals.
As well as the truly bruising challenges, there was the unsavory spectacle of fouls being desperately appealed for when there was little or no contact.
If anything, the second half was even worse more fractured than the first. Peru displayed a little more positivity after the break, but any flow to proceedings was still desperately lacking. The decision of the tournament organizers not to have 30 minutes of extra time in the quarterfinals and semifinal was seeming like a merciful relief.
Yet right at the death, the need for spot kicks was almost averted. Peru’s half chances in the match had all come from aerial balls into the box, and thus it was no surprise that a corner was the avenue for Peru’s only clear sight of goal. As the match ticked toward the end of injury time, Christian Ramos rose for a header in the center of the Colombia area, but his header was well tipped over by Ospina.
Minutes later, Ospina’s intervention proved crucial once again. After five penalties had been successfully converted, Trauco stepped up and struck a left-footed shot that lacked conviction and was saved by the goalkeeper flying to his left. After Sebastian Perez followed James, Cuadrado and Dayro Moreno in finding the back of the net, Colombia’s celebrations were ignited when Cueva blazed into the stands to crush the hopes of the significant numbers of Peruvians interspersed all over a bouncing stadium.
Against either Chile or Mexico, two attack-minded teams, it is likely to be a very different contest in the last four.
“No matter which opponent we will face, we have the resources to bring a good match and to go out to win,” Pekerman said boldly.
It will certainly be a momentous occasion for Colombia, as it seeks, in the 100-year anniversary of the tournament, to reach the final for the first time outside of its home country. And after its last golden generation in the late 1980s and early 1990s ended in drug-cartel fueled tragedy at the 1994 World Cup, delivering a title would mean plenty.