Brazil and Colombia come through South American battles
Brazil, the 5/2 favourites with Coral to lift the World Cup in their own country, booked their place in the quarter-finals in a manner that could not have been more different from 12/1 shots, and next opponents, Colombia.
Phil Scolari’s Samba Boys were saved twice by the woodwork, first at the end of extra time and then with the final penalty of a shoot-out in which they did just enough to sneak past Chile. Fate can be cruel.
Jorge Sampaoli’s all-out attack outfit pushed the tournament hosts to the very limit here. Referee Howard Webb harshly ruled out a Hulk strike in the regulation 90 for handball, when it looked more like control off the shoulder and chest, but ultimately this will be forgotten.
We must not allow the sensational style of Chile to slip our minds, however. There was no fear factor from them, despite a dismal record against bogey team Brazil. It was Sampaoli’s side that sent reigning champions Spain home, thus ending an era and that is something which will never be taken away from them.
For all the plaudits earned by Argentine coach Sampaoli, a disciple of predecessor Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa and his unorthodox tactics, one omission from the final Chilean squad he made looked as though it might come back to haunt him.
Big Phil’s boys took the lead against their neighbours from a set piece. Chile’s defence is not the tallest, and Fred pledged to exploit this in those very situations. It was not the Samba Boys target man that profited from this lack of height, though, but centre halves Thiago Silva and David Luiz.
Samba Boys skipper Silva nodded a corner over towards his partner, who stuck out a leg, though the final touch may have come off a Chilean body. The identity of the scorer can be left to the dubious goals panel. What is important is that Sampaoli cut Marcos Gonzalez from his final 23-man roster for the finals.
At 6ft 3in, the 34-year-old would have added an experienced presence to Chile’s back three. Gonzalez may not be the quickest, but without him there was always a chance this weakness would be seized upon. He would certainly have been preferable to Francisco Silva here.
Credit Scolari and his players for realising that the diminutive stature and low centre of gravity of much of the Chilean contingent was not only a strength going forward, but a weakness at the back.
Sampaoli’s side were able to capitalise on more full back laxity from Brazil, however, when Eduardo Vargas robbed possession from a Marcelo throw in and teed up strike partner Alexis Sanchez to equalise with ease.
Such errors have been glaring, both from the Real Madrid left back and Barcelona’s Dani Alves throughout this tournament. Many can overlook this, instead praising the number of touches the latter has had in the opposition half. On such sloppy evidence, and consistently so, both Alves and Marcelo are a far cry from Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
Once it came down to a lethal lottery from 12 yards, Big Phil’s Samba Boys looked more assured. Camera shots showed Chilean players almost in tears before a ball was kicked in the shoot-out. Their lousy luck notwithstanding, watch out for Sampaoli’s side at the Copa America next summer.
Moving on to the other all-American clash of the last 16, Colombia and Uruguay had plenty in common going into their encounter. Both nations were without their star strikers, albeit for very different reasons. Radamel Falcao’s injury was clearly planned for by coach Jose Pekerman, while Oscar Tabarez will know others failed to step up and cover for Luis Suarez.
If the serious cruciate ligament tear suffered by Falcao and a suspension for the once bitten, twice shy, thrice banned Suarez levelled the playing field, there was precious little evidence of that.
Edinson Cavani was thrust centre stage for La Celeste; no danger of him playing out wide to accommodate anyone here, as he had bemoaned barely six months into his spell at current club PSG. As has almost always been the case with him when putting on a Uruguay shirt at a major tournament, he went missing.
While Cavani sat on the margins with another tepid showing, enter James Rodriguez. Colombia’s number 10 can play anywhere across advanced midfield areas, and boy did he show it here. A brace from Falcao’s clubmate at Monaco took the man with James on the back of his shirt top of the World Cup scoring chart for these finals.
Rodriguez is now the 11/4 second-favourite, behind Lionel Messi, to remain there when the tournament ends. His opener against Uruguay was a piece of individual brilliance, unleashing a sumptuous in-off-the-bar volley from a headed Abel Aguilar pass.
Unlike the suspended Suarez or Cavani, Rodriguez showed he was not just about solo efforts. He wrote headline news by finishing a fine team goal. Colombia striker Teofilo Gutierrez, West Ham loanee Pablo Armero up from left back and Fiorentina wideman Juan Cuadrado all chipped in with good work to make this second strike possible.
David Ospina, reportedly on the radar of Arsenal, had to make several saves at the other end, but Tabarez’s team were working him rather than stretching the Nice stopper here. Victory for Pekerman means he takes Colombia into unknown territory. This is as far as they have ever gone at a World Cup.
Here’s hoping they play with the same adventure, enthusiasm and for each other against Brazil. Scolari said after scraping past Chile that the hosts have got “three games to… reach heaven”, but there was nothing divine about the way the Samba Boys progressed.
Colombia’s Rodriguez, meanwhile, can be your redeemer punters, if you take that 11/4 price.