Thursday, June 28, 2007

Copa America Group B Round-up: Chile v Ecuador (3-2); Mexico v Brazil (2-0)

Brilliant. It was another great day at the Copa America. Yesterday, the four Group B teams went at it, and both games had their share of magic moments and goals, goals, goals. Ecuador and Chile were up first. Early evening and the humidity and were still high; 88 degrees at kick-off. Ecuador were the favorites going into this, despite the fact they have always had a tough time in the Copa America. But their showing in last year's World Cup was strong and the team hoped to further their modest successes by doing well here. They looked great, I thought, and dominated the pace of the game for large swathes of it with their tidy passing, flowing rhythms, and ability to fall back when exhaustion seemed to be nestling in the players' muscles, only to disappear when a breakaway toward goal was needed.

But somehow, Chile managed to win it. A much-deserved win, though it can't be denied that they blew many opportunities to command the game. They had plenty of nifty short passes and in the early stages of the first half they were the more prodding of the two teams. But their players lacked commitment and a certain selfishness that could've dismantled Ecuador's relaxed territorial defense.

Ecuador went on the scoreboard first in the 16th, but Chile scored themselves a few minutes later. But before the Chileans could fully bask in their goal, Ecuador rushed back into form when Cristhian Benitez fired one in. Both teams had plenty of immediate chances early in the second half, the most insanely cheeky moment coming when Chile's Humberto Suazo sprinted down the middle with no one to stop him except an Ecuadorian defender and face-painter keeper Cristian Mora. Managing to sweep around the defender, Suazo flicked the ball over the charging face-painter's head only to see it land on top of the net instead of in. Chile's cautious determination eventually did pay off with goals in the 40th and 42nd minutes. Sadly, though, I think Ecuador deserved better. Nevertheless, it was the best game of the tournament so far....

Until Mexico walloped Brazil. From start to finish both teams played flourishing attacking football, and early on Dunga's so-called B squad (Robinho, Vagner Love, Diego, Ze Roberto, Gilberto Silva, Alex, Doni, Fred!) did what those over-marketed Joga Bonito illusionists do. But Brazil have been an increasingly troubled and underwhelming team since World Cup 2006 and perhaps their reputation as the finest proponents of The Beautiful Game has finally started to fade past the no return mark.... Maybe a little tarnished, but the Brazilians still looked good. They scored in the 6th only to have it declared offside (I don't think it was). Alex had another good chance a few minutes later, but Mexico's keeper Guillermo Ochoa, a young swishy player with the calm and serenity of Buddha, kept it out. Ochoa, who plays for Club America, has grown on us over the last year and no doubt the Brazilians will never forget him. Oswaldo, watch out!

Mexico, coming off of a disappointing and brutal loss against the US in the Gold Cup final, turned things around beautifully in this match, consistently attacking and thwarting the increasingly bewildered Brazil squad. Mexico scored via the crafty Nery Castillo (who has been viewed with suspicion by the Mexican media and plenty of the fans as well before tonight) in the 24th and then by the veteran Morales from a great free-kick inthe 29th.

Brazil had lost their groove. They were definitely not down and out by any means, and Dunga's lads had plenty of powerful shots aimed right at the curly-locked Ochoa. But Mexico kept their wits, kept their energy level up throughout and managed to pull off the biggest upset so far. And the buffoonish Hugo Sanchez, who was sure to get sacked if El Tri failed to impress, has perhaps staved off the return of Ricardo Lavolpe for a little while.

Tonight's big match: Argentina v USA!

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