Fans are celebrating after securing a quarter-final game against the vinotinto in San Juan
Finding grilled meat in Argentina isn't usually a problem, but for days the parrillas of Mendoza have been rammed. With Chile only 130 miles across the Andes, fans have come in their droves, with reports of queues of more than six hours at the border. Even a day after their 1-0 win over Peru – a poor match in which neither side managed a shot on target before the decisive late own goal – they lingered, and many will make the short hop up to San Juan for Sunday's quarter-final.
I watched the denouement to Group B, the runners-up of which Chile were to face in the last eight, with a restaurant full of chilenos. At the start of play, it was still possible for them to face any of the four sides, but it was clear who they wanted: Venezuela. Or rather, given nobody believed Ecuador could get a result against Brazil, Venezuela seemed the preferable of the three available options.
When Venezuela took the lead against Paraguay with five minutes gone, that didn't seem likely. If the vinotinto won, they would top the group whatever happened between Brazil and Ecuador. But Paraguay came back. When they went 3-1 up, it meant Brazil had to win by three to finish top and so avoid Chile. But then Venezuela came back: two goals in the last five minutes earned them a 3-3 draw. The Chileans celebrated; as long as Brazil won, it was Chile versus Venezuela in San Juan.
But this is not a Brazil you can rely on. At half-time in Córdoba it was 1-1, which meant, given the slightly daft tournament format and the oddity of not starting the final games in each group simultaneously, that it would be Brazil versus Venezuela and Chile versus Paraguay in the quarter-final. Fortunately, this Brazil is not machiavellian enough to play for a draw; either that, or they couldn't face the stigma of qualifying as the second-best third-placed team. They won 4-2, and so face Paraguay on Sunday, while Chile got the tie their fans wanted, and take on Venezuela in San Juan.
As Clarín celebrated una goleada, La Nación welcomed the return of "pure logic" and Olé said this was what we had been waiting for, there was a sense that the tournament woke up on Wednesday. In the sense of goals, and improbable twists and turns, they were right, but this has been a quietly engaging tournament from the start, in part because of the struggles of the seeds, all of whom followed two draws with a much more impressive performance and victory in their third group game.
After 25 goals in the first 16 games of the tournament, suddenly there were 12 in two, taking the average goals per game to an almost respectable 2.06. The low number of goals was a cause for concern, and yet it always seemed slightly inexplicable: this has not been an especially negative or low-quality tournament. The poor pitch in La Plata didn't help Argentina or Brazil in their opening games but more generally this was more a tournament of chances missed than not created. Charles Reep, for all his eccentricity, was right when he said that the month-span of a major tournament isn't long enough to judge anything; random chance plays its part. After all, every October in the Premier League there's a fuss about the abundance or dearth of goals or the high/low number of draws or some equivalent statistic, and it's almost invariably forgotten by the end of the season once the random element has had time to work itself out.
That said, there was further evidence of internationals edging towards crisis. The quality of play wasn't poor – or at least not by the standards of international football, which lags well behind the club game. With limited time for players to train together, it's hard for sides to generate the same cohesiveness and understanding they have at club level. Defensively, that can be rectified by packing men behind the ball, but creatively it is soluble only with time. That, perhaps, explains the form of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, all of whom produced their best football in their third game. You wonder as well whether the fact that only four of the 12 sides are eliminated at the group stage means the early fixtures lack a little intensity.
"Now, a new Copa América begins," said Pato, scorer of two of goals in their 4-2 win over Ecuador. "This was the sort of play we all expected." Well, perhaps. Neymar, at last, came alive, and scored twice, but defensively, Brazil still looked shaky, even with the inclusion of Maicon for Dani Alves. Júlio César's gaffe, letting Felipe Caicedo's shot under his body, only confirmed the growing impression that he is no longer the goalkeeper he was. What is particularly puzzling is that even with Lucas Leiva sitting just in front of the back four, Caicedo twice found shooting opportunities from central areas just outside the box.
Argentina, similarly, exhilarating though they – and Lionel Messi in particular – were on Monday, must be aware that other sides will not be dispatched as simply as Costa Rica were. They have paid full price for missing out on top spot in the group, having to face a platense derby in Santa Fe while Colombia take on Peru. Uruguay have sputtered along so far, neither as poor as the other two seeds in their opening two games, nor as impressive in their third. The win over Mexico, though, in which the issues with the depth of their back line in relation to the midfield seemed finally to be solved (although again, this Mexico are not the sort of opposition from which to draw firm conclusions) was their best performance. In some ways the injury to a misfiring Edinson Cavani may have done them a favour.
Colombia won Group A comfortably, and would have done so more emphatically but for their profligacy against Argentina. The 4-1-4-1 shape has worked well, with the wide midfielders, Dayro Moreno and Adrián Ramos, both supporting their full-backs and getting forward to offer a goal threat alongside Radamel Falcao. They have given the sense of playing within themselves, calmly feeling their way into the tournament, and should be too good for an organised but limited Peru. Still, Sergio Markarian, their 66-year-old Uruguayan coach, can draw encouragement from their performances after they finished bottom of the World Cup qualifying group.
Paraguay, Brazil's opponents, have had a curious tournament, having the better of all three group games and yet winning none of them. They are a much more open, attacking side than they were in the World Cup, but the result has been a defensive frailty that saw them concede a last-minute equaliser against Brazil, and two goals in the last four minutes against Venezuela. The left-winger, Marcelo Estigarribia, has been probably the outstanding creative player of the tournament so far, but his reward for exposing Alves in the group match against Brazil is likely to be having to face the more defensively sound Maicon in the quarter-final.
Which leaves the Chile-Venezuela game. It's understandable that the Chilean fans were so keen to face the vinotinto, who have only ever won three games in Copa América history, but this is a fast improving side. Tomás Rincón, in particular, has impressed at the back of the midfield, with Oswaldo Vizcarrondo a commanding centre-back. César González, José Rondón and Juan Arango have all had their moments at the other end as well. That all three Paraguay goals came from set plays, though, probably highlights their weakness.
Chile, meanwhile, were the most attractive side in the opening week of the tournament, Claudio Borghi retaining the 3-3-1-3 shape and basic ethos of his predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa. Alexis Sánchez has been a delight, particularly in his link-up with Mauricio Isla, while Jorge Isla was superb after coming off the bench against Uruguay. They will miss Jean Beausejour, suspended after his red card against Peru, for the width he offers on the left, but with at least three-quarters of the stadium in San Juan likely to be behind them, they should still be confident of reaching the semi-final.
And then, assuming Paraguay don't spring an upset, they will have to face Brazil.