Monday’s Copa America semifinal looked like a one-sided training game at one point, but it quickly turned into a tense struggle where, in the end, Brazil were pleased to hear the final whistle that sealed their 1-0 win over Peru.
This time it was not because Brazil had a man sent off and had to defend with depleted resources, as happened in the quarterfinal against Chile. On Monday, it was 11 against 11 until the end. But Peru, who looked as if they were playing with eight in the first half, grew so much after the interval at times they had Brazil close to the ropes.
It was a game, then, that leaves both coaches with food for thought and something to cheer about. Brazil boss Tite has three reasons to celebrate; his team are in Saturday’s final, they will not have to play again on the dreadful pitch in the Nilton Santos stadium and the first half was as good, if not better, than anything they have done in the tournament.
He made the expected change from the disappointing performance against Chile, starting with Lucas Paqueta to give him the extra man in midfield. There were times in the first half when Brazil resembled the glory days of 2016-17 — the triumphant first 18 months of Tite’s reign when Renato Augusto ran the midfield with elegance and intelligence. Paqueta is the closest thing they have to Renato Augusto, and his partnership with Neymar was outstanding.
Brazil allowed Neymar to roam free, with Richarlison at times getting into the centre-forward position but also putting in a defensive shift down the left flank. Everton Soares played on the right wing to open up the pitch. Danilo, the full-back on that side, operated cautiously while left-back Renan Lodi was encouraged to get forward. And with Casemiro and Fred also joining up with the attack, Peru were almost swept away. Only keeper Pedro Gallese kept them in the game, but he could do nothing when the deadlock was broken 10 minutes before half-time; Richarlison sent Neymar away down the left channel, he beat two defenders plus a few craters and hills on the pitch and pulled back for Paqueta to judge the awkward bounce well and steer home.
Peru had set out to do a damage-limitation exercise. They fielded three centre-backs and a line of four in midfield, leaving Gianluca Lapadula isolated in what was effectively a 5-4-1. But what else could coach Ricardo Gareca do? He was taking a peashooter to a knife fight. With star performer Andre Carrillo suspended, it was hard to see how he could hurt the tight Brazilian defence. But if it was easy to feel sorry for Gareca, the coach was not feeling sorry for himself. He made changes at the interval that altered the game, giving more evidence of the magnificent work he has done with the limited resources available to a coach of the Peru national team.
Gareca’s side always look well-coached. They specialise in a combination of short passes, drawing in the opposition and then switching play to the other flank. They know what they are trying to do. And with a tweak here and a tweak there, Gareca managed to send out a team that astonishingly had the better of the second half. He had seen that there was no need for the three centre-backs. The problem was higher up the field, and so he took off a defender and concentrated on interrupting the circuit of passing between Neymar and Paqueta.
Suddenly, Brazil were being forced back.
Raziel Garcia came on at half-time and made an impact on the left of midfield. And a glorious ball into space from Yoshimar Yotun gave Lapadula the chance to run at Thiago Silva, cut inside him and force a fine save from Ederson in the Brazilian goal.
This was a moment that must have alarmed Tite, who now has a decision to make before Saturday’s final. The long-term plan has always been for Eder Militao to partner Marquinhos in the heart of the defence in next year’s World Cup — and Militao’s recent form for Real Madrid has accelerated that process. Will Militao come in for the final? Silva was beaten with relative ease by Lapadula — and when he has played in this tournament, Brazil have not been able to press with the same intensity. This was certainly a factor in the second half against Peru. Tite spent much of the time yelling at his team to play but, without a high press, Peru were sufficiently comfortable to do most of the playing.
Peru will be back in action for Friday’s third-place playoff — a chance to give an extended opportunity to Garcia and also have a longer look at the likes of Marcos Lopez, Jhilmar Lora and Martin Tavara, youngsters who all came off the bench against Brazil. The 31-year-old Italian-born Lapadula is the only one to have broken through into the starting line up since Russia 2018, and if they are going to fight for a place in Qatar next year, then there must be more renovation and competition for places.
Brazil, meanwhile, wait a day to find out who they will be facing in Saturday’s decider. As he left the field, Neymar made it very clear which opponent he would rather take on.