How relieved must Argentina be that Juan Roman Riquelme decided to overturn his decision to retire from international football after the last World Cup? He has been singularly important to their Copa America performance this summer, and last night put on another devastating individual display to fire Argentina into the semi-finals, this time against the hapless Peru. He’d already forced a good save out of the goalkeeper and hit the crossbar before he finally opened the scoring two minutes into the second half, and he bagged another one as well – in the eighty-sixth minute, after Tevez and Mascherano had put the result beyond any reasonable doubt.
So, how good is this Argentina team, then? I was one of their biggest cheerleader at the World Cup last summer, when they suddenly and unexpectedly ran out of steam against Germany in the quarter-finals. What is most impressive about them is their sheer range of attacking options – if you stop Riquelme, then you have to deal with Tevez, Mascherano, Messi, Cambiasso and Crespo. Contrast the fact that Hernan Crespo picked up a tournament-ending injury with the injury that Michael Owen picked up for England against Sweden last summer. Have Argentina given up the ghost on playing attacking football in the same that England did last year? Of course not. This is the reason why England were so hated by neutrals last summer, and why this Argentina should be celebrated now. Potentially, they could run out of steam at any point but, if they don’t, but they’re a joy to watch until they do.
In the other quarter-final, Mexico destroyed Paraguay 6-0. The game was up for Paraguay inside two minutes, when they had their goalkeeper, Aldo Bobadilla, sent off for a professional foul. Castillo converted the penalty, and that was that, really, wasn’t it? Well, not quite. Although Castillo added another one, and Arce, Blanco, Torrado and Bravo completed the scoring for Mexico, Paraguay had several chances to score themselves and, had the wind been blowing in their direction and the two teams had the same number of players for the entirety of the match, it could just have easily ended up 4-4. Mexico look much more workmanlike under Hugo Sanchez than they did under the devil-may-care Ricardo Lavolpe (who, for those of you that were wondering, managed just five months at Boca Juniors in Argentina, before decamping to Velez Sarsfield, whose ambitions are somewhat more modest than Boca’s), but they beat Brazil in their opening match and the only match that they didn’t win was a 0-0 carve up against Chile in their final group match, a result which ensured both teams’ qualification for the quarter-finals.
So, the semi-finals are Brazil-Uruguay and, somewhat more intriguingly, Mexico-Argentina. Brazil have been moving ominously into gear since their opening defeat by the Mexicans, though they were somewhat flattered in their remaining group matches and were fortunate in drawing Chile in the quarter-finals. Uruguay have blown hot and cold so far – we saw the best of them in the quarter-finals against Venezuela, but they were fortunate to get the group stages and I’m struggling to see how they will be able to put up much resistance against the likes of Robinho, Juan and Baptista. Considerably more intriguing is the match-up between Argentina and Mexico. Argentina beat Mexico 2-1 in the second round of the World Cup last summer, but they required extra-time to do it, and were very lucky to not have Gabriel Heinze sent off with the scores still level at 1-1. This Mexican side seems better organised than that one did, and I fancy that they could make life quite difficult for Argentina in the semi-finals. If they fail to beat them, of course, we could be looking at a Brazil-Argentina final. Now, who’d have thought that before it all started?