By DAVID MOSSE
Argentina and Brazil may well end up meeting in the final of the 2011 Copa America as most people envisioned before the start of the tournament, but the days of the two countries towering over the competition in South America appear to be over. Argentina at least managed one convincing performance in its final group game, yet the level of satisfaction over brushing side Costa Rica's Under-22 side was a testament to how tense the situation had become.
The hosts began with a disappointing draw against Bolivia and were incredibly lucky to avoid defeat at the hands of Colombia, which ended up topping Group A. Lionel Messi is still searching for his first goal and Carlos Tevez has indeed been dropped. Sergio Aguero appears to be the chief attacking threat for Argentina, while Colombia is the only team yet to concede a goal and, not surprisingly, is relying on the talents of Falcao Garcia up front.
Some of the most fascination action took place in Group C with Peru performing much better than anticipated, despite the absence of strikers Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan due to injury. Mexico goes home without a point in its worst Copa America display ever, as Giovani dos Santos was unable to carry an under-strength squad, while group favorites Chile and Uruguay played well enough in spurts to earn passage into the knockout phase.
The Uruguayans are paying the price for Diego Forlan's noticeable drop in form since the last World Cup, and Chile missed the presence of Matias Fernandez in the final two group games after the Sporting Lisbon star limped out of the opener against Mexico. Fernandez is hopeful of returning for the next round, which would be welcome news for Alexis Sanchez, who is just one of several stars still looking to make their mark on this competition.
Here is a closer look at the four quarterfinal matchups:
Colombia vs. Peru: Saturday, 3:00 p.m. ET, Univision
Falcao Garcia arrived at this tournament with a reputation for disappointing at the international level, but he caused plenty of problems for Argentina in a scoreless draw and notched both goals in the victory over Bolivia that secured first place in Group A. Manager Hernan Gomez will hope the talented hitman can make up for the staggering finishing problems of the rest of the team.
Dayro Moreno produced the miss of the tournament against Argentina, somehow slicing a shot wide with the net completely open. Gomez must be ecstatic with the play at the back, however, as Colombia has yet to concede a goal. Peru's Paolo Guerrero represents a difficult challenge, as Guerrero has assumed the responsibility offensively and combines fairly well with Juan Vargas.
Argentina vs. Uruguay: Saturday, 6:15 p.m. ET, Univision
Lionel Messi temporarily silenced his critics with a strong performance in a more withdrawn role against Costa Rica. The Barcelona experiment is apparently over after two games with Gonzalo Higuain now serving as the target man that Sergio Batista was initially willing to do without. Higuain squandered several chances in the 3-0 win over Los Ticos, but remains very dangerous.
The question for Batista is whether his defenders can hold up against a Uruguayan attack capable of breaking out of its recent funk. Argentina was incredibly fortunate not to concede a couple of goals to Colombia after allowing Bolivia to find the back of the net in the opening game. Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez will all be ready to pounce on any mistakes at the back.
Paraguay vs. Brazil: Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, Univision
Paraguay will be disappointed to see Daniel Alves on the bench for Sunday's clash after the Barcelona man virtually gifted Gerardo Martino's side a goal in the previous encounter between the two teams. Maicon proved once again with his performance in the final group match against Ecuador that whatever their respective form at club level, he is the much better option for Brazil.
Mano Menezes still needs to sort out problems in the midfield with Paulo Henrique Ganso drifting in and out of games, and Ramires misplacing passes with frightening regularity. Paraguay will hope both Roque Santa Cruz and Lucas Barrios can cause problems for the Brazilian back-line, while Antolin Alcaraz and Paulo Da Silva are responsible for containing Alexandre Pato.
Chile vs. Venezuela: Sunday, 6:15 p.m. ET, Univision
It remains to be seen whether Matias Fernandez returns to the lineup for this intriguing matchup. His replacement Jorge Valdivia has performed reasonably well, including providing a pinpoint pass for Alexis Sanchez to equalize in the 1-1 draw with Uruguay, but Sanchez enjoys a much better understanding with the Sporting Lisbon standout and will certainly hope he recovers in time.
Chile is no longer quite the same pressing side that suffocated opponents under Marcelo Bielsa, yet Claudio Borghi's men will look to impose themselves against Venezuela, which lacks quality in the center of the park. Alexander Rondo scored a lovely goal for Los Vinotintos against Paraguay, while the likes of Juan Arango and Nicolas Fedor are capable of troubling the Chile defense.