Belo Horizonte: At last, the Copa America had cachet. Slowly, a sea of yellow shirts filtered through the turnstiles of the Mineirao Stadium and transformed the cauldron on the outskirts of the Minas capital into a bubbly and expectant arena. A grand spectacle awaited: the stage, the teams, the occasion, the beauty of the Copa America encapsulated through the hosts’ encounter with Argentina.
And so the Mineirao provided a welcome relief from the tangible antipathy that engulfed previous matches at the Copa America. At a base level, Brazil and Argentina reconnected with the continent instead of selling out to the highest bidder in distant capitals like London, Beijing or Doha. The noise level during Brazil’s national anthem with a cappella ending had volcanic proportions before Dani Alves dashed forward with a manic zeal from the first whistle.
Brazil had a point to prove. Winning this semi-final wasn’t only compulsory but they needed to do it in style after underwhelming displays in the tournament. Brazil’s right back was in on the act and in the 19th minute the 36-year old toyed with the Argentina defenders before releasing Roberto Firmino who teed up an unmarked Gabriel Jesus for his first tournament goal in open play.
Alves’s ageless grace exposed Argentina’s lax defending. Both Leandro Paredes and Nicolas Otamendi lunged and German Pezzella just seemed to run away from Jesus.
But the early goal didn't result in a barnstorming Brazil - the way Tite’s team had dispatched Lionel Messi and an aging Albiceleste 3-0 in a 2016 FIFA World Cup qualifier at the same venue. These are different times for Brazil. Tite has been tinkering with the balance of the team ever since he admitted that Brazil had been too open and thus too vulnerable in last year’s World Cup quarter-final elimination by Belgium.
Brazil had not faced opponents with enough attacking firepower in this Copa America, but Argentina posses forward riches that few teams can match.
Whenever Messi touched the ball, alarm bells went off in the Brazilian camp. The diminutive Argentinean had been peripheral in this tournament, but his acceleration always had the yellow rearguard on highlight alert. In a breathless first half punctuated by grit, flying tackles and tight marking, Argentina almost equalized from a Messi set piece, but Sergio Aguero’s header ricocheted off the woodwork.
It was temporary relief. Martinez Lautaro tested Brazil’s number one Alisson with a volley. Argentina’s forward trident teed up De Paul who spooned the ball over and Messi struck the woodwork again.
With frenetic intensity the game was reaching boiling point. Brazil were tidy, perhaps too tidy, ceding possession and the initiative to Lionel Scaloni’s team. On the touchline, Filipe Luis, in the orange bib seemed like the assistant manager, not that Cleber Xavier was forsaking his duty, but Brazil struggled to regain any sense of control. A team of 'flops' were growing into the game. Messi painted a set piece towards the top left corner, but Alisson didn't subscribe to his ‘Messianic’ range and stood tall.
Nerves frayed and legs tired. Philippe Coutinho, and Arthur once more underwhelmed and apprehension was setting in for the fans. For much of the second half Brazil were awful. But with the cushion of Jesus’ goal they could lurk on the counter. When the opportunity arrived Brazil were ruthless and punished Argentina for spilling possession. A tireless Jesus zipped passed Otamendi and Roberto Firmino tapped in the winner.
Cue delirium in Belo Horizonte.
This semi-final emphatically delivered on its promise of transcending a dull tournament. Indeed, the game carried the strange burden of saving a tournament that had failed to ignite.
In Brazil and other parts of South America this fixture is considered the biggest derby in the world - Nunca nada sera maior do que Brasil x Argentina (Nothing will ever be bigger than Brazil - Argentina) wrote Martin Fernandez in Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo on the eve of the game, referring to the unmitigated passion that this game elicits and the influence both the Brazilian and Argentinean schools has exerted on the global game.
The argument has pro and cons, but there is little doubt that Brazil vs Argentina is a pure football rivalry with domination on the continent and beyond at stake, as both teams proved in abundance on a wildly chaotic and extraordinary Tuesday night that included all the theatrics and histrionics of a South American classic. The game was always dangerously on edge, but at the same time gloriously intense, filled with a brilliant energy that is unique to South America’s football culture.
In the short-term Messi bows out of another tournament, silverware an-ever more distant dream. But he finished alongside Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria, Agüero, Lautaro Martinez and Giovani Lo Celso on the pitch, demonstrating the individual resources around which Argentina can build again for the next cycle.
Looking at Brazil you wonder where the individual talent and flair, the hallmarks of previous Seleção teams had gone? Tite was playing for the result but the laboured victory showed the balance in his team to rekindle the progressive spirit that made his Brazil a joy to watch before the World Cup in Russia still isn’t quite right.
Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 20:04:49 IST