Colombia defeated Peru last night on penalties to reach the Copa America semifinals for the first time since 2004. Unlike, last year, when the team bowed out to Argentina in the quarterfinals, this edition of la selección Colombia has made it to the final four and will now have a chance to reach the finals if it can beat the winner of today’s matchup between Chile and Mexico.
While it certainly wasn’t an impressive victory featuring beautiful football, all that matters at this stage is advancing. The lack of dominance, however, does throw some cold water on any optimism that Colombia can win the tournament.
The team played disjointed football for 90 minutes and nearly lost to an inferior team. Outside of one James Rodríguez near-golazo that bounced off the goalpost, the selección wasn’t able to generate high-level chances, as Peru played a defensive game and hoped to steal a goal on the counter attack or by earning some set-piece chances.
That plan nearly worked. Peru threatened twice, but both times, Colombia’s Copa America savior, goalkeeper David Ospina, was there to thwart the attempt.
The first came at 30 minutes when a dangerous cross found its way in front of the net. One of Peru’s forwards was in position to get a head on it. But Ospina wisely lept off his line to swipe the pass out of the air and out of harm’s way.
The goalie was there again in the closing seconds. With the score still 0-0 after 91 minutes, Peru won a corner kick. Peruvian center back Christian Ramos, who led a stout defense on the other end, rose above everyone else to head the ball towards the net. It was on target and looked poised to sneak in under the crossbar — until Ospina used his quick reflexes to jump and get a mitt on the ball to knock it away.
His heroics didn’t stop there. After a scoreless draw, the two teams squared off to decide the winner on penalty kicks. Colombia was clinical, with James starting a string of four consecutive no-doubt-about-it kicks. Juan Cuadrado, Dayro Moreno, and Sebastian Pérez each followed suit, stepping up to the spot and calmly scoring.
Ospina was the difference. Miguel Trauco thought he beat the keeper on Peru’s third attempt by putting his shot dead center. Ospina dove and seemed to have no chance. But he managed to hang his leg up as he laid out and — just barely — make the save with the tip of his boot.
This gave Colombia the advantage. And soon it was all over, but the crying, after Peru’s Christian Cueva skied his penalty shot into the stands.
Before the penalties, the highlight of the match came at the 20-minute mark when James got possession and mounted a 20-yard run into the final third. As two defenders converged, he stopped and fired a masterful shot between them from outside the box with his weaker right foot. The keeper was beat. The ball curved toward the lower left corner of the goal — before ricocheting off the post. Carlos Bacca was first to the rebound but his try, from a tough angle, landed out of bounds off the side of the netting.
Colombia was not without other flourishes. Less than three minutes in, Bacca dribbled in close for a shot that was saved. Juan Cuadrado played a fabulous ball to the center for Daniel Torres. Santiago Arias fed a racing Bacca in the box, as the striker fell to the ground and argued for a penalty. A well-placed James free kick allowed a jumping Jeison Murillo to put a header on goal.
But these chances, like the dozen other link ups that never materialized into anything more, all had something in common. When Colombia needed one last pass, touch, or dribble to elude the well-organized Peruvian defense, they came up short. Bacca looked clumsy, Edwin Cardona was slow to react, Cuadrado made multiple miscues, and James spent as much time diving as he did spraying the field with precision passes.
Despite all this, there was a lot to like about how the team controlled possession and moved the ball around the pitch. There was no doubt which team was better. The ultimate focus and execution to turn good effort into goals, however, was non-existent on the night.
The team wasn’t good. Fortunately, though, David Ospina was great. That was enough to beat Peru, but it likely won’t cut it against any of the teams Colombia will face in the next round. Ospina got Colombia this far. Now he needs his teammates to offer some help if Los Cafeteros hope to stay alive much longer.