When Argentina and Paraguay met earlier on in this tournament, we were treated to arguably the very best match of the Copa America so far.
The Albiceleste stormed into a two-goal lead at half time, but as they’ve showcased throughout the entirety of this competition, Los Guaranies are no soft touch and they roared back in the second period to secure a vital 2-2 draw. A triumph for Paraguay, but a disaster for Argentina.
Momentum accrued from that match could be vital in this semi-final showdown. Indeed, the tone for each side was set by that opening encounter, with Argentina proving to be underwhelming themselves but difficult for opposition to overwhelm, while Paraguay have been brash, cohesive and in the big moments of games, showcased a steely composure.
It was a trait on show in earnest in their quarter-final clash against Brazil, as they knocked out the Selecao at this stage, on penalties again, for the second successive Copa. As they did against Argentina and Uruguay, Ramon Diaz’s side rallied from a going behind to avoid defeat.
The Albiceleste will surely be wary of Paraguay’s qualities after that opening clash and in many respects, the fear that might be prevalent following that opener could spark Lionel Messi and his teammates into life. But, it must be said, just like their opponents, Argentina also resemble a side that are willing to go all out for glory.
They should be, as it’s been 22 years since this illustrious soccer nation last won a major trophy. Argentina will be big favorites to make it to the showpiece final against Chile, but do they have what’s required to get the better of the 2011 runners-up? Make your own mind up, as we run the rule over these two sides and take a look at where this one will be won and lost.
TV schedule for viewers in the United States:
Argentina vs. Paraguay, 7:30pm ET kickoff time (pre-game starts at 6:30pm ET) — exclusively on beIN SPORTS and beIN SPORTS en Espańol.
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Battle-hardened Argentina Searching for a Spark
The conundrum of how to get Argentina’s array of attacking quality to thrive collectively is an issue that has blotted the career of many of the team’s managers. Sadly for those associated with this proud soccer nation, it’s a complex Tata Martino also seems to be struggling with.
Although Colombia’s tactics in the quarter-final did border on bald thuggery, the attacking impetus still wasn’t there for Argentina. They probed well, moved the ball into dangerous areas, but when it came to their final pass they were wasteful and whenever chances did materialize, were profligate.
Even Messi, who inspired Barcelona to a tremendous treble with some unbelievable performances, had a free header saved from six yards out. The skipper isn’t the only one having a tough time of things in front of goal, though, and at this late juncture, it’s tough to see Martino stumbling upon a formula that’ll see Argentina sweeping teams away as they should be.
And yet, they’ve made it this far. What this group of players may be lacking terms of rhythm going forward, they more than make up for with qualities you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a side loaded on flair. Indeed, in an abrasive quarter-final, even Messi and Aguero rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.
But the defensive section of the team has been excellent. One of Argentina’s perennial flaws has been goalkeeper Sergio Romero, but a back four of Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo—shielded by Javier Mascherano, no less—have ensured that opposition sides are feeding off scraps.
Crucially for Argentina, Messi and Aguero are just one booking away from potentially missing the final. So expect a much more measured approach from the two forwards against Paraguay, with attention solely directed towards getting the goals needed to push Argentina into the final.
Paraguay Looking For Second Successive Final
Is there a more spirited team in this tournament than Paraguay? Already they’ve gone up against three of the biggest sides in the competition—Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay—and as they get set to tackle the Albiceleste for a second time, they’ve yet to be beaten.
They’ll be flying into this clash too. Los Guaranies were magnificent against a disjointed Brazil side in the quarters, producing a tremendous second half display to get back in the match. Then, perhaps with the memories of their penalty glory from four years ago still prominent in the minds of some, held their nerve on penalties.
It was a performance emblematic of a team that knows they have nothing to prove. Plenty expected Diaz to utilize this competition as a chance to lay some foundations for the upcoming World Cup qualification schedule, with a place in the knockout stages maybe about par for this group of players
But now they’re within touching distance of a second consecutive final, these players will be dreaming. And why not? They are clearly a confident bunch that are unfazed by the prospect of teams that possess a grand gravitas and in Diaz they have a tactically savvy manager who has rotated his team with expertise throughout the competition.
The standout man for Los Guaranies so far has been Nelson Valdez. While the forward has only netted one goal in the tournament to his point, he’s been a tremendous outlet for Paraguay, whether it’s picking runs into the channels, winning aerial challenges or battling with central defenders for loose balls.
It’s going to take a team effort for Paraguay to get past this obdurate Argentina back-line, though, meaning Derlis Gonzales must create as he did against Brazil, Victor Caceres must hold the midfield together and Pablo Aguilar must ensure he commands what is occasionally a disorganized back four.
Paraguay Shape: In their opening game against Argentina, Diaz went with a 4-5-1 system, clearly looking to stifle their opponents’ attacking arsenal. But having gone in at half time 2-0 down, the Paraguay boss shifted back to a 4-4-2 and that was vital in Los Guaranies rescuing a point.
So what does he do here? Can forwards like Valdez, Roque Santa Cruz and Lucas Barrios, all capable strikers but not the most mobile, press Argentina for 90 minutes like the did in the second half against last time? Will Diaz rely on the four-man midfield he’s deployed since that game to knock Argentina out of their stride? Or will he give his original plan another outing?
Playmaker Pastore: Argentina have always had brilliant holding midfielders and effervescent forwards, but they’ve often been short when it comes to an orthodox No. 10 option. But Javier Pastore is beginning to grow into the role.
There’s still more that the Paris Saint-Germain man can do. With Angel di Maria and Messi either side of him and Aguero stretching defenses in front, Pastore has had a lot of the ball at this Copa America. We’ve seen some moments of marvel from the playmaker, but to break down a team as tenacious as Paraguay, Argentina will need a little more care from the PSG man’s final ball.
Verdict: Argentina 2-0 Paraguay
Paraguay deserve immense credit for their run so far and even though they’ve fared well against all of their opponents, there were a few signs in Argentina’s last encounter that things were beginning to align at the sharp end of the pitch.
Had it not been for an incredible effort between the sticks from David Ospina, the Albiceleste would have won the match comfortably. Against a team that aren’t quite as defensively structured as Colombia, barring another superhuman showing from the opposition goalkeeper, Argentina should find it much easier to create chances in this match.
In addition, while Paraguay’s forward options have played with bravery and gumption, Garay and Otamendi are well equipped to cope with the physical threat they pose.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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