By DAVID MOSSE
Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar has emerged as an unlikely hero in this 2011 Copa America after helping his team earn another shootout victory on Wednesday against Venezuela. Gerardo Martino's side has yet to claim a single victory in five games but will take on Uruguay next with an opportunity to capture its first Copa America title since 1979, and Villar figures to be busy again.
The 34-year-old keeper stopped Franklin Lucena's shot for the only miss of the shootout following a scoreless draw in which Venezuela created the better chances, including hitting the woodwork twice. Nicolas Fedor and Salomon Rondon also forced tremendous saves from Villar, while Gabriel Cichero fired just wide on another occasion, as Venezuela came agonizingly close to reaching its first final.
Los Guaranies looked slightly more dangerous than in the quarterfinal against Brazil, but the injury to Roque Santa Cruz has wreaked havoc to a potentially explosive attack. Santa Cruz did come on in the second half only to exit soon after and his status for Sunday is unclear, which is bad news for both Lucas Barrios and Marcelo Estigarribia, as Paraguay needs to regain its form. It'll need to do so without Martino's guidance as well, as the manager was given a two-game ban for his actions in the post-match brawl after the semifinal. Martino will be in the stands for the final.
Uruguay strikers Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan are unlikely to squander the same opportunities that Brazil and Venezuela squandered in the past two games. Suarez was on target twice on Tuesday, as the Celeste booked their place in the final with a relatively comfortable 2-0 victory over Peru. Uruguay dominated from the start, and Alvaro Pereira had a goal ruled out late in the first half.
Oscar Tabarez’s side finally broke through seven minutes after the break when Peru goalkeeper Raul Fernandez fumbled a shot from long distance and Suarez pounced on the rebound. The Liverpool star doubled the advantage soon after by rounding Fernandez before firing into an open net, and any chance of a comeback came to an end when Juan Vargas was sent off in the 68th minute.
Vargas had created the best chance for Peru in the first half with a teasing cross just out of the reach of Paolo Guerrero. It was a disappointing performance, but the semifinal exit still represents a spectacular success for Sergio Markarian. Venezuela had at least demonstrated significant progress in recent years, but Peru’s run came out of nowhere, especially given all the injuries heading into the tournament.
Overcoming Uruguay without strikers Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan proved too tough a task, however, because the Celeste appear to be on a mission to build on the fourth-place finish at last year’s World Cup. A victory on Sunday would not only move Uruguay past Argentina for the all-time lead in Copa America titles, but it would also confirm that South America once again has three major powers.
Here is a closer look at the final matchups:
Peru vs. Venezuela, Saturday, 3 p.m., Telefutura
Both teams are looking to finish out successful tournaments on a positive note with a victory in the third-place match. Peru will be without Vargas, which means all the responsibility offensively falls on the shoulders of Guerrero and Luis Advincula. Guerrero figures to pose the greater threat, while Fernandez should be called upon plenty in goal.
Los Vinotintos have demonstrated the ability to create chances against any opponent and will be slight favorites on Saturday, provided Cesar Farias rolls out his strongest lineup. Rondon, Fedor and Juan Arango were responsible for some of the best opportunities against Paraguay, while Cichero causes problems with his runs from deeper positions, so Peru’s back-line must be ready.
Uruguay vs. Paraguay, Sunday, 3 p.m., Univision
Jonathan Santana is suspended for Paraguay after being sent off in extra time against Venezuela, but the big question is whether Santa Cruz can contribute anything to the cause. Santa Cruz made an impressive start to the tournament and looked poised to move past Jose Cardozo, becoming Paraguay’s all-time leading scorer, but his injury has forced the team into a defensive shell.
Uruguay recovers Diego Perez, who missed the semifinal through suspension thanks to the red card picked up in the previous match against Argentina. Perez should bolster a midfield that has looked more compact ever since the injury to Edinson Cavani forced Tabarez to alter his formation. Forlan has yet to find the back of the net, but is enjoying a strong tournament and remains dangerous.
Who do you see winning Copa America? Who do you think will win the third-place match?
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