Chile do just enough to beat 10-man Peru and reach Copa America final
SANTIAGO, Chile -- More than half the Peruvian population likely watched their team fall 2-1 to Chile in the Copa America semifinal. Some might have ended the game shaking their heads and muttering about the same old Peru. Others might, even in defeat, have been enthused by the sight of an even older Peru.
Over recent years, Peru have failed to get close to a World Cup because of a dismal away record -- a problem that seems to be a mental one as much as anything. In a packed National Stadium, there was another Peruvian attempt to press the self-destruct button.
For the first quarter of Monday night's match, there was no question: Peru were the better side. Coach Ricardo Gareca had spoken before the match of using the home crowd's anxiety against the Chileans, and his plans were working nicely, with his team brimming with confidence after their quarterfinal win over Bolivia.
Peru kept compact and forced Chile to pass the ball sideways. In possession, they looked to lengthen the game by playing behind the home defence with Andre Carrillo, brought into the side especially for this match, as the main target. Peru were like an accordion, constantly compressing and extending -- until centre-back Carlos Zambrano hit a very low note.
Zambrano has occasionally showed signs of instability for the national team, and that flared up once more. He had already received a yellow card for an early spat with Arturo Vidal, and after 20 minutes he was shown what appeared to be an indisputable straight red for coming through on Charles Aranguiz with an entirely unnecessary high kick to the back after clearing the ball.
Peru had done it again. Once more, the team had proved their own worst enemy in a massive away match. The whole shape of the game inevitably changed from there: Peru brought on another centre-back, Cristian Ramos, and were forced to sacrifice the tricky, attacking midfielder Cristian Cueva, an important supply line for Carrillo up front.
The initiative swiftly passed to Chile, who now had the time and space to find their rhythm. They took the lead (with a touch of fortune) five minutes before halftime. Alexis Sanchez dinked in a cross shot from the left, a goalkeeper's nightmare, and the ball came back off the far post to be bundled home by Eduardo Vargas, who looked to be in an offside position. (To quiet the conspiracy theorists, it is worth noting that early in the second half, Vargas had what seemed to be a legitimate goal ruled out for offside.)
Peru had flattered to deceive again and blown up when it mattered most. It seemed they would surely be overrun in the second half, but that is not the way it happened at all. Peru emerged after the break with a brio, an organisation and an attacking threat that made a game of it.
Ramos slotted in well at the back, the remaining 10 players kept their defensive discipline, and their pace on the break and aerial power were a threat to the Chile defence -- a point proven when Luis Advincula broke down the right and his cross was turned past his goalkeeper by a panicky Gary Medel.
This was a Peru side more reminiscent of the golden days of the 1970s, when the team were South American champions. With a bit of confidence flowing through their veins, they looked nothing like the team that have collapsed so often in their recent travels. But if Peru did not read their own script, then neither did Chile.
Even when below their best, coach Jorge Sampaoli's side can play some breathtaking stuff and throw so many players forward at pace. But at times, it looks as if they are trying to walk the ball over the line. For a team that enjoys such possession, they are often shy of shooting at goal.
This time, they won the match with a 25-yard shot no one was expecting. The Peruvian defensive line backed off, and keeper Pedro Gallese was caught unawares as Vargas, with little back lift, fired home a cross shot good enough to win any game.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.