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Chile ended their near century drought with a penalty shoot-out victory over Argentina in front of a sea of red in Santiago on Saturday to claim their first ever Copa America. It was a triumph of the collective over the individual and fittingly rewarded the country’s best ever generation with victory on home soil. Yes, there had been some kind refereeing decisions that had gone their way but that shouldn’t take anything away from a fantastic team performance by Sampaoli’s men. For Argentina, it was so close but yet so far as they fell at the final hurdle for the second year in a row. For them the wait continues.
After a memorable tournament, now comes the time for reflection and a chance to recognise some of the best performers from Chile 2015. Playing in a 4-2-3-1, here are the players that stood out for me over the course of the last few weeks.
Although his days at Arsenal may be numbered, David Ospina had an excellent tournament even if Colombia flattered to deceive. It may have been a case of a misfiring forward line for los Cafateros but their defence performed very well with Ospina conceding just once in four games. The highlight was Ospina’s virtuoso display in the quarter-final against Argentina when he made a series of world class saves as Colombia weathered wave after wave of Albiceleste attack. His double save, first from Aguero before springing up to keep out Messi’s header, was probably the best save of the competition but his finger tip stop from Nicolas Otamendi wasn’t far behind. While Sergio Romero and Claudio Bravo both had solid tournaments and each made important contributions in penalty shoot outs, Ospina’s heroics see him claim the number one jersey. An honourable mention goes to Bolivia’s young stopper Romel Quinonez who underlined his burgeoning reputation with some eye-catching displays.
As is also the case for Argentina, Marcos Rojo earns a place due to the fact there weren’t really any other standouts at left back. To be fair to Rojo in the space of 18 months he has gone from a serious doubt to cementing his place as a reliable if not spectacular performer in the Argentine back four. A wobbly final aside, Rojo was solid and also offered a threat going forward as displayed by his opening goal in the semi-final rout against Paraguay. Peru’s Juan Manuel Vargas was also one of the better full backs on show in Chile and Jamaica’s Kemar Lawrence was also impressive during the group stage.
Although not typically seen as a centre back, Medel was brilliant at the heart of Chile’s defence all tournament. What he lacked in aerial presence he more than made up for with his trademark tenacity, tackling and reading of the game, while his versatility and willingness to adapt to the needs of the team’s system typified the commitment to Sampaoli’s approach. He was shifted to the left side of a back three for the final and was fundamental in nullifying the threat of Messi, even if on the odd occasion he resorted to some pretty rustic methods. What’s more, Medel’s underrated intelligence and discipline made him a real leader at the back for Chile. Every dog has its day and this certainly proved to be the crowning achievement of the Pitbull’s career so far.
Going into the tournament there were still lingering question marks over who would replace the sizeable hole left by Mario Yepes’ retirement from international football after the World Cup. Those questions were emphatically answered after a string of impressive performances by Jeison Murillo, who later walked away with the award for best young player of the Copa. Technically good, quick and strong both in the tackle and in the air, Murillo was one of the reasons for Colombia’s excellent defensive record and made more tackles and interceptions than anyone else in the competition. As well as keeping things tight at the back, he also scored the Cafateros only goal of the tournament with a fine swivel and snap shot against Brazil in a 1-0 victory. It was unfortunate that it was his penalty miss against Argentina that sent Colombia out but they certainly wouldn’t have got that far without him. Inter Milan’s €8m signing already looks an absolute steal.
The Peruvian right back had a great tournament as they reached the semi-finals. A big, strong unit of a man with bags of pace – earning him the nickname Bolt – Advincula always provided an outlet when initiating attacks and was important for los Incas direct counter attacking style. This was typified in the semi-final defeat to Chile when his overlapping run and dangerous cross forced Medel into conceding the equaliser. That’s not to say he didn’t fulfil his defensive duties and his imposing frame meant he was consistently able to outmuscle opposition forwards. The Hoffenheim full back was pushed close by Chile’s Mauricio Isla who had a fine tournament after a lacklustre year at Loftus Road.
Once again el Jefecito was an absolute rock for Argentina throughout the tournament. In his favoured No.5 role at the base of midfield, Mascherano was integral in shielding the unconvincing defence behind him and was a big part in the fact that Argentina only conceded three times. As well as breaking up play and making tackles, his underrated technical qualities allowed Argentina to transition from defence to attack quickly too. The heartbeat of the side, his inspirational presence almost pushed Argentina to a first title in 22 years and he looked emotionally distraught after missing out again so narrowly. Also, for his performance against Neymar alone, Carlos Sanchez deserves a mention as another defensive midfielder who impressed.
One of the players who made Chile tick without grabbing the headlines, Aranguiz consistently put in all action displays in midfield and was arguably the best player on the pitch in the final. He formed a great partnership with Arturo Vidal, who also had a fine tournament in spite of his off the field misdemeanours, and chipped in with two goals and two assists. El Principe was a constant bundle of energy, making tackles and interceptions whilst maintaining a high pass completion rate and always looking for a trademark late surge into the box. It would be a huge surprise if a European club didn’t come calling for his services this summer.
One of the revelations of the tournament, Christian Cueva showed the potential he has always hinted at and became one of the stars of Ricardo Gareca’s interesting Peru side. Back at Alianza Lima after an unsuccessful loan spell at Rayo Vallecano, Cueva’s creativity, nimbleness and guile on the left hand side of Peru’s midfield unsettled many defences. His goal against Brazil was a fantastic piece of opportunism and he ran both Venezuela and Bolivia ragged at times, assisting Paolo Guerrero with a perfectly weighted dink against the latter. It was a shame that he was the man to be withdrawn in the semi-final after Carlos Zambrano’s early red card as his pace and directness had the potential to cause Chile problems. If he continues this good form, Cueva could be at the forefront of an exciting generation of Peruvian players for years to come.
Jorge Valdivia | Chile | Al Wahda | Central Attacking Midfielder:
There was something joyous about watching Jorge Valdivia during the tournament as el Mago stepped up and lived up to his nickname. Dogged by injuries and inconsistency at Palmeiras, it seemed as if the puckish playmaker had been saving himself for a big moment and he well and truly delivered. Playing such a vital role in Sampaoli’s flexible and fluid 4-3-3, Valdivia seemed to be the calm in the frenetic perpetual motion around him, always able to find pockets of space and thread killer balls. And it wasn’t just style over substance. Joint top of the assists charts with three and delivering more key passes per game than anyone else the stats back up his importance to Chile’s victory. Oh and that caño on Fucile too. Simply sublime.
Leo Messi | Argentina | Barcelona | Right Attacking Midfielder:
What more can you say about Messi that hasn’t been said before? He may not score the goals he does for Barcelona but at times Messi was sensational, particularly in the 6-1 destruction of Paraguay in the semis when he played a hand in all six goals. Though Argentina can call upon a host of stars, Messi was still the man who his teammates looked to for inspiration, making twice as many dribbles as any other player in the tournament and taking an average of 4.5 shots a game. Unfortunately, a title for the sky blue and white still evades him and he’ll take little comfort in his personal performances but still provided this tournament with some special moments.
Paolo Guerrero | Peru | Clube de Regatas do Flamengo | Striker:
It was difficult to choose between Eduardo Vargas and Paolo Guerrero, the tournament’s joint top scorers with 4 goals apiece, but the Peruvian just shades it for his all round play and his importance to his side. A warrior by name and nature, experienced striker Guerrero lead the line as the target man for los Incas and was great at winning aerial challenges, holding the ball up and bringing others into play. His work rate was also phenomenal and he showed off his impressive technique and skills too, often drawing timely fouls in dangerous positions. Guerrero single-handedly put Bolivia to the sword with a well taken hat-trick and was responsible for 50% of his team’s goals and for me just edges Vargas.
Here is what the final XI looks like:
Written by Tom Robinson