Lionel Messi and James Rodriguez are about to meet again. They’ve left their clubs behind — Barcelona and Real Madrid — and this time Messi is wearing Argentina’s blue and white and Rodriguez the red, blue and yellow of Colombia.
Of the four quarterfinals this week in the Copa America, Argentina vs. Colombia on Friday is the most compelling. Argentina has won this title 14 times and, with Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero, has easily the most talented attack in the game.
Colombia has won this title only once. But it’s probably South America’s fastest rising power, has an Argentine coach in Jose Pekerman and its own set of talented scorers including Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez.
In other quarterfinals it’s Chile vs. Uruguay on Wednesday, Bolivia vs. Peru on Thursday and Brazil vs. Paraguay on Saturday.
The South American championship is a mini-World Cup. Five of the quarterfinalists reached the last 16 in Brazil’s World Cup. Three reached the quarterfinals and Argentina was the losing finalist against Germany.
Neither Argentina nor Colombia has put it together in group play. Argentina blew a two-goal lead, drawing 2-2 with Paraguay. It has 1-0 victories against Jamaica and Uruguay, and was fortunate after Uruguay dominated the late play.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino knows many players are spent from long European seasons. The Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus —with Messi on one side and Tevez on the other — was played just five days before the Copa America began. “The failure to score and secure the outcome, it obviously beginning to generate some uneasiness,” Martino said.
Colombia barely advanced, although it did beat Brazil 1-0 for its only group victory.
Host Chile is the sentimental favorite, and has been the most entertaining as it seeks its first Copa title. Chile has scored 10 goals, twice as many as anyone else. The only blot is star midfielder Arturo Vidal, who wrecked his red Ferrari while driving drunk last week. He got a four-month driving ban, but coach Jorge Sampaoli — another Argentine — kept him on the team.
Defending champion Uruguay has not been the same without Luis Suarez, who is banned from the tournament for biting Italian Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. This leaves the attack to Edinson Cavani, who has been largely ineffective in the three group matches.
Brazil is without Barcelona star Neymar, who was banned for the rest of the tournament after losing his temper after a 1-0 loss to Colombia. He kicked the ball at a Colombian player, appeared to try head-butting another and then accosted the referee, grabbing his arms and swearing at him. Brazil decided Monday not to appeal the four-match ban.Brazil defeated Venezuela 2-1 on Sunday and played better than it had with Neymar, using Robinho and Philippe Coutinho in attack.
Bolivia and Peru are the two big outsiders. But the winner will make the semifinals against Chile or Uruguay in the weaker half of the draw. This bodes well for Chile, which has already beaten Bolivia 5-0. Peru has been better than expected, losing 2-1 to Brazil, drawing Colombia 0-0 and beating Venezuela 1-0.