Brazil vs. Argentina can make up for Copa America's underwhelming knockout rounds
A semifinal in a major tournament is a showpiece occasion, but the neutral could be excused for not being able to muster much enthusiasm for Wednesday's Copa America clash between Chile and Peru.
Neither side has managed a goal in its past two games. Peru have only scored in one of four matches, in the past two have not come close to finding the back of the net, and yet they are through to the last four of the world's oldest continental competition. To make matters worse, Wednesday's semifinal takes place on the dreadful ploughed field of a pitch in Porto Alegre.
Of course, there is merit that needs to be highlighted. Chile's much criticised coach Reinaldo Rueda has emerged, in his traditional low-profile way, as one of the stars of the tournament, methodically adapting his team's model of play to the ageing resources at his disposal. In flurries, Chile are still an attractive side, and Peru rallied after the mauling they took from Brazil to defend effectively against Uruguay.
But, in the buildup at least, the match serves as a symbol of a disappointing competition. Tournaments are always remembered for what happens in the knockout stage, and little will stick in the memory from four quarterfinals in which only one side managed to score a goal.
There are a number of explanations, some more generic, others specific to this competition.
The format of the Copa is a potential weak point. Of the 12 sides, eight go through to the quarterfinals, which then go straight to penalties after 90 minutes. It is possible, then, to reach the last four despite having done very little -- as Peru have made clear.
Many of the pitches have been substandard. Lionel Messi made the pithy comment that the ball is behaving like a rabbit, jumping all over the place. Brazilian authorities seemed inclined to dismiss this until the home side struggled against Paraguay in Porto Alegre. Poor pitches make life hard for teams that want to attack.
So, too, does the truncated nature of many of the games. The foul count is high -- some South American games can be fought as much as played -- and matters have been made worse in this competition by exaggerated use of the video referee, breaking up the rhythm of the game with constant interruptions.
And then there is a glaring contradiction that is especially strong in Brazil 2019: a tournament caught between the end of the season and the start of a process. That bane of so many tournaments -- players running on empty at the end of an exhausting club season -- is well and truly present. So is the fact that these national teams are hardly well-oiled units.
Like recent versions of the Copa, Brazil 2019 kicks off a new cycle of competitive matches. But World Cup qualification starts much later this time, because Qatar 2022 will be at the end, rather than in the middle of the year. The qualification process, which usually starts in September or October, this time does not get underway until March. This has removed the sense of urgency from the Copa.
Many teams have recently appointed coaches; Argentina still have a caretaker. The sides came to Brazil undercooked, and are trying to find a blend during the course of the competition. There is tactical interest in the adjustments that are being made, but it is like watching a tentative rehearsal rather than a fully prepared show.
The first semifinal, though, can transcend all of this. There can be nothing rehearsal in nature in a competitive match between Brazil and Argentina. On Tuesday night, Belo Horizonte plays host to the contest that could save this year's Copa.
Argentina against Brazil is footballing rivalry at its purest. There are no massive historical issues between the neighbours -- it is all about a battle for supremacy in the global game. The players will be breathing the air of the great clashes of the past, not just the World Cup qualifiers in the Mineirao stadium in 2004, 2008 and 2017, but every great meeting down the ages.
And this match has far more than history. Whatever happens on Tuesday will resonate for some time.
For Brazil, this is the first time their post-World Cup lineup really makes sense. After last year's quarterfinal elimination at the hands of Belgium, Tite tweaked his side to improve the balance between attack and defence. His Copa opponents, though, have so far been reluctant to cross the halfway line. But Argentina have the firepower to take advantage if Brazil over-commit to attack. This match, then, offers a true measure of the extent to which Tite has got things right.
Argentina, meanwhile, are likely to begin an entirely new project once this Copa is over. A humiliating defeat on Tuesday will close the door on some international careers. A good performance may well mean that several of those promoted by caretaker coach Lionel Scaloni will be part of the new regime. Many of the team will be playing for their international futures.
And, of course, there is the presence of Messi. By his own admission, he has not had a good tournament. It is impossible to see Argentina winning without a major contribution from their No. 10. And even if he is on form, can Argentina really get away with playing Messi plus two out-and-out strikers? How will their full-backs defend against Brazil's flying wingers?
If the second semifinal does not quicken the pulse, the first one certainly does. Make way for the match of the tournament.