A more than two-hour delay caused by a storm in Chicago meant this game did not finish until after 11.15pm local time. On a late night, Chile did their most important work early on, sealing a place in the Copa América Centenario final with two quick goals and defending well enough to frustrate a fitful Colombia.
This centenary edition of the tournament has not felt fully authentic, coming only a year after the last iteration and on an entirely different continent than normal, but the identity of the finalists is the same as in 2015 and the climax at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Sunday has the potential to be a thrilling occasion.
It will be a reprise of last year’s final in Santiago, when Chile beat Argentina in a penalty shoot-out. The game had ended 0-0. With Argentina having scored 18 goals in their five Copa matches so far, including four times in each of their past two games, and Chile’s attack in this kind of form, it is hard to envision another scoreless stalemate. The nations also met in Group D earlier this month, a Lionel Messi-less Argentina winning 2-1.
Colombia had sought to reach their first Copa final since 2001, when they hosted the tournament and won it. Instead they will meet the US in Saturday’s third-place game in Arizona: a rematch of the opening fixture, a comfortable 2-0 victory for José Pékerman’s men.
The teams could hardly have experienced more different quarter-finals en route to Wednesday’s semi-final. Colombia beat Peru on penalties after a goalless draw, while Chile vaporized a Mexico side that was on a 22-match unbeaten run by the insane margin of seven goals to zero.
Chile were missing two key midfielders on Wednesday, with Arturo Vidal suspended and Marcelo Diaz injured, while Carlos Bacca, the AC Milan forward, was unfit to start for Colombia but came off the bench for the last ten minutes. The absences did not faze La Roja early on as they controlled the opening skirmishes and picked up where they left off against Mexico.
Charles Aranguiz put Chile ahead in the seventh minute with a volley past David Ospina. Aranguiz delayed his celebration for a second or two as he glanced back towards the assistant referee, but despite his guilty instincts he was comfortably onside. Anyway, the chance was created by a Colombian – Juan Cuadrado, whose attempt at a headed clearance flashed across the penalty box.
Perhaps Aranguiz’s look also reflected a sense of disbelief that he was afforded so much space, centrally, six yards out.
Such defensive delinquency was not an isolated incident. Chile worked the ball forward swiftly less than five minutes later and a thumping drive by Alexis Sanchez pinged low off Ospina’s near post and rebounded kindly for the onrushing José Pedro Fuenzalida, all alone, who had the easiest of chances as a reward for his determined running in support of the attack.
It would have been three soon afterwards but for a good save from Ospina as his Arsenal team-mate, Alexis, a human tunnel bore, drilled his way towards goal and shot from an acute angle.
Midway through the first half, there was hope for Colombia as Roger Martinez forced a decent stop from Claudio Bravo, the Chile goalkeeper. Helped perhaps by an injury to Chile midfielder Pablo Hernandez, Colombia insinuated themselves deeper and deeper into enemy territory as the half wore on.
With 32 minutes gone, Colombia defender Santiago Arias, from an offside position, burst beyond the back line and drew a messy save from Bravo who, inexplicably, had advanced so far off his line that he was almost in Wisconsin. A couple of minutes later, Bravo was booked for time-wasting. In the first half. It was that sort of night: slightly eccentric.
Colombia almost pulled a goal back before half time when Carlos Sanchez hit a dramatically dipping shot that appeared headed for the far bottom corner of the net until Bravo stuck out a hand.
The crowd at Soldier Field was far below capacity, the night after a 70,858 sell-out in Houston for Argentina’s 4-0 win over the US. There was almost no one in the stands during half time as spectators retreated to the arena’s interior for safety.
Finally, at 10.25pm local time, after heroic efforts from the squeegee-wielding grounds crew to dry the sodden field, the second half kicked off.
It was natural to wonder whether the long wait would give one side an advantage. As it turned out, the referee had a more significant impact on the pattern of play than the weather.
As the players splashed around yet still kept up a frantic pace, Colombia quickly had a reason to feel aggrieved. Daniel Torres was clearly fouled by Gonzalo Jara inside the area, but Joel Aguilar waved play on.
The Salvadoran referee infuriated Colombia again in the 57th minute with another dubious decision as Sanchez was sent off for a second bookable offence – a mistimed challenge that did not deserve a yellow card, especially given the difficulty of playing on a pitch resembling a paddling pool.
Still, Colombia continued to press and the sides traded chances in the final half hour. Chile themselves were denied an obvious penalty when Cristian Zapata hacked down Alexis with four minutes to go. In closing minutes pockmarked by a couple of ugly fouls, Colombia’s 10 men were unable to find a goal. On Sunday that surely will not be a problem – weather permitting, of course.
This article was written by Tom Dart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd June 2016 05.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010