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To defy history and knock Argentina out of the Copa America, Venezuela could have done with their first-choice centre-backs.
When coach Rafael Dudamel took over a little more than three years ago, one of his first moves was to bring left-back Mikel Villanueva into the centre, giving him much needed defensive pace. More recently, Yordan Osorio has come through well as his partner. Both were outstanding in last week’s goalless draw against Brazil. Both were missing in the Maracana — Villanueva with fever and Osorio with muscular problems — and it cost them in a 2-0 defeat.
Their absence made a difference at the start of the game. Argentina settled quickly, and forced a sequence of early corners. Venezuela’s second-string defence looked uncomfortable every time. Something had to give, and after failing to deal with yet another in the barrage of corners, Sergio Aguero at the far edge shot back into the penalty area and Lautaro Martinez scored with a clever flick.
Forced to chase the game, Venezuela could really have done without a blunder from their young keeper Wuilker Farinez, who otherwise had such a fine tournament. It was inside the last 20 minutes, and Farinez may have been distracted by the need to distribute quickly. But he failed to hold Aguero’s shot, and substitute Giovani Lo Celso followed up to seal the game, and the place in the last four.
From this point the outcome was never in doubt. In between the two goals, though, Venezuela were right in the game, playing their way into the contest and giving Argentina cause for concern.
Argentina, inching their way towards some sort of coherent means of using the talent at their disposal, found that it is not easy to play Martinez, Aguero and Lionel Messi against an opponent who offers a significant threat. All three cannot stay high; one must drop and help with defensive duties, or else the team can be overrun. For much of the game, Aguero attempted to put in an extra shift, and coach Lionel Scaloni tried to help him out by defending with a high line, thereby reducing the amount of distance that Aguero had to run back.
The individual talent of the Venezuelan attackers ended up forcing the line deeper, and Argentina became more disjointed. Scaloni threw Juan Foyth in at the deep end. The young Tottenham centre-back was asked to play at right-back, up against the pace of winger Darwin Machis. Foyth was beaten for speed, but saved himself with good timing in the tackle — but he was walking a tightrope. The slightest error would lead to a penalty, and there was one moment when the video referee took a look at one of his challenges.
Infield, big Salomon Rondon consistently got the better of Nicolas Otamendi, but Venezuela were unable to get enough players close to their centre-forward to take advantage. Once Yangel Herrera arrived in time, but failed to take the opportunity to shoot. And in the second half Venezuela lost the thrust of Herrera. Worried that centre-back Luis Mago was close to a red card, Dudamel replaced him, and Herrera was forced to drop into the defence. Rondon lost his best support option.
Concerned that he was losing the midfield battle, Scaloni replaced Martinez with Angel Di Maria, hoping to exploit opportunities on the counterattack. Lo Celso came on for Marcos Acuna in a bid to keep the midfield more compact and enjoy more controlled possession; it took just six minutes for Lo Celso to be on hand to score the vital second goal.
The semifinal place, and that successful substitution, is not the only thing that Scaloni can be happy about. Keeper Franco Armani had a sound game, catching his crosses well and making a couple of smart blocks. Argentina, then, have kept two consecutive clean sheets — and won two consecutive games without decisive contributions from Messi. Whether they can do something similar against Brazil in the semifinal is another matter entirely.