Colombia top Peru on penalties as Copa spectacle meets expectations
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Three quick thoughts from Colombia's 4-2 penalty shootout win over Peru in the Copa America Centenario quarterfinals after 90 minutes of 0-0 football.
1. The spectacle lived up to expectations
When the scheduling for this tournament was put together, it was not unreasonable to believe that we'd have been watching the U.S. play Brazil at MetLife Stadium on Friday night. From a marketing point of view, you could see the argument that this would be the moment the tournament truly ignited the interest of the neutrals, or just the general American viewing public.
Instead, of course, we had the U.S. playing in Seattle on Thursday and Brazil at home waiting for the Olympics, while the organisers of the Copa pondered the marketing value of Colombia vs Peru. With the push-back against ticket prices, one had to wonder if this game would capture the popular imagination in anything like the same way.
And there were empty seats at the start of the game, but as it happened, that was more to do with traffic on a Friday night in the Greater New York area. By the time the last of the yellow balloons -- this was a majorly pro-Colombia crowd -- had stopped floating around the field midway through the first half, the majority of seats had filled up and the atmosphere was simmering nicely in front of the announced 79,104 crowd.
And if the game always looked as likely to ignite through a physical flashpoint as through a moment of technical ingenuity, either possibility was enough to keep the atmosphere sustained. Fouls were jeered, back-heels roared and for Colombia in particular, the need to make a breakthrough within 90 minutes -- before the lottery of penalties -- added an air of urgency to their play that had been curiously lacking at times during the group stages.
Colombia didn't make the breakthrough, of course, and the crowd's patience turned to anxiety as the minutes counted down, then downright terror as Peru almost stole it in the dying seconds. But as Colombia eventually navigated the shootout, the final cathartic roar from their fans was spectacle enough.
2. Peru's game plan doesn't change
If we were expecting a sudden shift in style from Peru, after their unexpected dominance in group play, it was a familiar approach that they wheeled out in this quarterfinal. Compact, aggressive, multiple men behind the ball and always, it seemed, keeping eyes firmly on the clock.
The early exchanges of the match were marked by hard tackling and some equally emphatic reactions, as Peru's players took advantage of every firm contact from their opponents to hit the turf and break up any momentum Colombia were looking to build. Los Cafeteros partly played into Peru's hands at this stage, as they tried to impose themselves physically as well as creatively on the massed Peruvian defense, only to create the stop-start pattern of the opening stages.
At times it looked as if Peru had started playing for penalties from the opening minute. There's no doubt that the effectiveness of the superior Colombian firepower was likely to be a determining factor in the game, and Peru had to focus on negating that as much as possible.
The form of Pedro Gallese may have given them confidence coming into the game, though in truth, he wasn't called on all that often, other than to narrow the angles for shots that passed both him and the woodwork. That was a telling quality of the game, with Peru working hard to play the percentages in the belief that if they had to allow Colombian shots, they would be from the narrowest angles possible.
Peru had precedent. At the same stage of the 2011 tournament, a younger version of this same team had run down the clock against Colombia, before stunning them with two goals in extra time. No extra time this time, but plenty of familiar Colombian frustration, and had Christian Ramos' injury-time header gone either side of David Ospina, we could have seen a very familiar sucker punch. As it was, Peru just fell short.
3. The battle of spearheads and playmakers
Just as Colombia once pinned their hopes on Radamel Falcao, the present-day team has its own talisman in James Rodriguez, a player who has flickered throughout the tournament and who was expected to be key to Friday's game. The wrinkle perhaps is that James' effectiveness is often linked to that of Carlos Bacca, whose movement ahead of him often provides the space for James to do his best work.
Peru have their own version of this combination, of course. Christian Cueva runs and runs in support of Paolo Guerrero, though it took until the 49th minute for the two to combine directly, as a frustrated Guerrero was called offside running onto a mis-timed Cueva pass. That may tell you everything you need to know about Peru's creative effectiveness in this game.
So what of James and Bacca? The AC Milan striker was as industrious as ever, bursting into the right of the box to fire just wide in the first few minutes, and picking up a few half-chances throughout the rest of the game. The most notable of which came from James' moment of genius midway through the first half, when the No. 10 angled into the center from the left of midfield, before hitting a dipping, curling shot that rebounded into Bacca's path from the inside of the post. But as was often the case on the night, the chance came at too acute an angle for Bacca to get his firm follow-up shot on target.
The better combinations, certainly the most numerous, came from James and Bacca. In truth, though, James' rare moment of inspiration apart, it didn't really look as if we were going to see a goal created and finished up the middle of the field. We didn't, until penalties of course.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.