Uruguay's Cavani gains a bit of revenge against 'old' foe Chile
The previous time Chile played in Rio's Maracana stadium was for a 2014 World Cup game against Spain. They won in style -- after a group of ticketless Chile fans had stormed their way through the press entrance.
Five years later Chile were back in numbers for their Copa America group stage match against Uruguay. Their fans made up the bulk of a near 50,000 crowd. Before the game the red-shirted masses applauded their players -- but jeered their coach, Reinaldo Rueda -- and they will probably jeer him all the more after a late goal gave Uruguay a 1-0 win, meaning that Chile finish the group in second place and now face the dangerous Colombians, while Uruguay have -- on paper -- a far easier quarterfinal against Peru.
The treatment of Rueda is harsh. He is doing a difficult job in trying circumstances. He would like to renew a team that is well past his peak. But the Chilean press and public show him no patience -- and anyway, there is a dearth of young talent coming through.
His team were flattered by the scoreline in both their previous group stage victories, 4-0 against Japan and 2-1 against Ecuador. Chile bring back memories of Muhammad Ali in his later fights. They look the same, and sporadically come up with their version of the Ali shuffle. But they can longer keep it up for the duration. The method of play that brought the Copa titles of 2015 and '16 is labour intensive; throwing players forward, creating numerical superiority close to the opposing goal, making the ball fizz and then pressing like mad when possession is lost. It is a young man's game -- and Chile are trying to do it with an old side.
Rueda has seen the signs. His team can no longer attack and stay compact. They are now forced to defend closer to their own goal -- so he has brought in extra height. But the problem remains of the attacking full backs. Mauricio Isla and Jean Beausejour are veterans, now longer able to get up and back for the full 90 minutes. The space behind them has become vulnerable.
The coach came up with a solution in the friendly against the United States in March -- defend with three centre backs. The extra defender gave his side enough cover to keep attacking down the flanks. It was a system that was made to measure for the game against Uruguay. A draw was good enough for Chile. Isla and Beausejour, along with star midfielder Arturo Vidal, were a yellow card away from suspension. Better to give them a rest, go cautious and swap the swashbuckling 4-3-3 for a deep lying 3-5-2.
For long periods of the game it worked. Uruguay were neutralised, outnumbered in all the vital areas -- and there was even a hope that, with Alexis Sanchez starting to regain some sharpness, Chile might even get themselves into the lead.
For Uruguay, meanwhile, coach Oscar Washington Tabarez continues to wrestle with a wonderful problem -- he has two world-class strikers. But fielding both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani gives him a headache in midfield - even though Cavani works so hard that he might even be described as the world's first box-to-box centre forward. On paper, Uruguay's line up was highly attacking, with forward thinking midfielders down both flanks. Nico Lodeiro on the left, though, had an unhappy time and was replaced at the interval. On the other flank Giorgian De Arrascaeta is a silky playmaker -- but not a wide midfielder, and he struggled to get into the game.
Tabarez added some lung power at halftime with the introduction of Nahitan Nandez. The central stumbling block to the 4-4-2 with wide midfielders is that the two in the middle can easily be outnumbered. This is what happened to Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur. Up against Pablo Hernandez, Erik Pulgar and a lively Charles Aranguiz, the Uruguayan central pair found it hard to give their team a platform from which to dominate the game. In the end it probably came down to a combination of sheer willpower on one side, and tiredness on the other.
The longer the game stayed goalless the more the question loomed; how much were Uruguay prepared to risk to go in search of victory and an easier quarterfinal tie? Valverde and Bentancur dug deep, won their battles in the closing stages, and at last found enough fluency in the final third to pull the Chilean defence around.The decisive moment came when the ball was switched purposefully from right to left, and the cross from substitute Jonathan Rodriguez was deftly glanced inside the near post by Cavani.
For the Uruguay striker it was sweet revenge. He was sent off when the sides met in Chile in the 2015 Copa, losing his head for reasons which afterwards became apparent. Images showed that opposing defender Gonzalo Jara had stuck his finger up Cavani's backside. Almost certainly for this reason, when the teams were announced Jara received the biggest cheer of all the Chile players. But this time, the plaudits and the points belong to Cavani and Uruguay.