Argentina thrash Paraguay to set up a fascinating final vs. Chile
CONCEPCION, Chile -- When Lucas Barrios lashed home with his left foot to score for Paraguay five minutes before halftime, the thought occurred that this semifinal versus Argentina might follow the same script as the rousing group match between the same sides a little more than two weeks ago.
In La Serena, Argentina had opened up a two-goal lead before Paraguay, who had at one stage seemed down and out, came roaring back to snatch a heroic draw. In Concepcion, once again Argentina went 2-0 up. Surely, Paraguay could not do it again? After Barrios pulled one back, a few nerves might have been jangling in the Argentina dressing room at the break.
But Gerardo Martino's men came out for the second half determined not to be caught twice in the same trap. In the first meeting with the Paraguayans they had wasted countless opportunities to kill off the game on the counter attack. This time they took the field with a ruthless streak, and within eight minutes the game was all over as a contest as Argentina went 4-1 up.
In just 52 minutes of this semifinal, Argentina had scored as many goals as they had managed in the first four matches of the tournament. By the end it was 6-1, a scoreline straight from the Wimbledon tennis championship.
And yet, taking both 90 minutes' into account, Paraguay were no worse in the second game than they had been in the first. They showed the same brio as in La Serena, and probably for longer. However, there was always a sense that this Argentina side were saving up the goals for a cold, misty evening in Concepcion. Before long those chances would have to count.
This was an evening when coach Martino's master plan came off. One of his attacking innovations in this tournament has been the use of Lionel Messi as a decoy, dropping deep, drawing the defence and opening up space for Javier Pastore to exploit. It was the ploy that won the game.
Argentina were already a goal up -- Marcos Rojo shooting home after a Messi free-kick fell at his feet -- when the Messi-Pastore link paid off for the first time. With 27 minutes gone, Lucas Biglia played square from the right to Messi on halfway and he saw the space to slip Pastore, who raced away and crashed home the second goal.
And then, right after halftime when Argentina needed it most having seen their advantage halved, the combination worked once more. Messi, deep and with his back to goal, passed back to Javier Mascherano, who planted Pastore into the space that Messi's retreat had created. Pastore slipped a wonderfully timed ball to Angel Di Maria in the left channel and his first-time shot gave Argentina an important cushion.
Messi was then so deep that he was nearly caught in possession on the edge of his own penalty area but Paraguay would pay a price for committing so many men forward to press.
Within seconds Messi was away in space, cutting across the field from the right. He found Pastore in the left channel, but his flick finish was blocked by goalkeeper Justo Villar. However, on an unhappy 38th birthday for the Paraguayan, the ball fell for Di Maria to tuck in his second goal and the game was effectively over.
There was still time for Argentina to show their depth in the centre-forward department. First, Sergio Aguero, showing fine movement and technique, darted into the space between the Paraguayan centre-backs to glance in a header from a Di Maria cross.
The Manchester City man was subsequently replaced by Gonzalo Higuain, who quickly announced his presence by lashing home left-footed after Messi had tried to tip-tap his way through the heart of the defence.
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And so Saturday's final is between Argentina and Chile. Will the hosts be daunted by what Argentina have done? Probably not. It is hardly a secret that the current Argentina side possess an embarrassment of attacking riches, so Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli has learned nothing new in that respect.
However, he will surely have paid attention to how uneasy the Argentines were occasionally made to look in the first half when they tried to play their way out of defence. Paraguay's pressing made it difficult and was the catalyst for Barrios' goal.
Argentina centre-back Nicolas Otamendi pumped the ball forward but Bruno Valdez aggressively beat Pastore in the air and the ball fell to Barrios in space behind Mascherano and he finished beyond Sergio Romero.
Pressing, then, gave Paraguay their opportunity and Sampaoli will feel that his Chile side are better prepared to do it for the full 90 minutes in the final.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.