Colombia find new way to win in tense Copa América semifinal

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — The hallmark of a championship team is the ability to win games in a variety of fashions and circumstances. Heading into Wednesday’s semifinal against Uruguay, Colombia has had things its own way at the Copa América, scoring goals for fun, and winning three of their four matches, with the lone blemish — if you can call it that — a draw with Brazil.

But in Wednesday’s match, Colombia had to summon all of its reserves. Los Cafeteros played more than half the match with 10 men following Daniel Munoz’s second yellow card in in first-half stoppage-time. But it was able to ride more set piece brilliance from James Rodríguez, some stretched-to-the-limit defending, and yes, some luck too to prevail 1-0, earning a trip to just the third Copa final in its history.

“I think this is a squad that is giving its all, and beyond the circumstances of the match, they really deserve this and we’re very happy,” said Colombia manager Nestor Lorenzo, with the help of a translator. “We’re very happy for bringing joy to the Colombian people.”

Uruguay is a team that loves to shove teams — literally sometimes — out of their comfort zone, pressing all over the field in a bid to achieve maximum chaos. After a slow start, La Celeste appeared to be doing exactly that, with Darwin Núñez twice going close. Jefferson Lerma’s goal, however, put Colombia ahead just before half-time. But then Munoz’s ill-advised elbow to Manuel Ugarte’s chest — especially in the age of VAR — earned him a second caution and the player advantage to Uruguay.

“One of the main topics we discuss is that we never want to be one man down,” said Lorenzo. “It is almost impossible to maintain performance with 10 players on the pitch. Teams that were dominating their opponents, when they were one man down, were eliminated from the tournament.”

Colombia proved to be the exception, with Lorenzo maximizing his bench, and the team going beyond what it thought possible.

“We always talk about multiplying the efforts. Sometimes 10 can make the effort of 12 players,” said Lorenzo.

For Uruguay manager Marcelo Bielsa, the ejection was the ultimate poisoned gift. Instead of being able to pounce on turnovers and create opportunities in transition, Uruguay was faced with the prospect of trying to break down a Colombia side that was increasingly content to sit back and defend. The chaotic became predictable.

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“I would have preferred to avoid the sending off of the Colombian player because what happened in the second half,” he said. “Given the way in which Colombia had to play to maintain the situation with one man down, it created greater challenges than the ones we were facing when they were 11.”

It helped Colombia’s cause that another moment of magic from Rodriguez had helped Los Cafeteros into a lead, with his corner-kick setting up Lerma for the game’s only goal. It was Rodriguez’s record-breaking sixth assist of the tournament, continuing his stellar run through this Copa América. But for Lorenzo, there were 14 other heroes.

“I think it’s a group that wants to be protagonist of this tournament. They want to win,” he said. “They are very hungry as players and eager and they really add many elements to the game beyond the tactical side. I think we we’re at the pivotal moment and we also see that there are some weaknesses that we need to overcome. And until you overcome those, you cannot grow. And when you do overcome those obstacles, you can evolve. So, I think we’re doing very well and yes, we are moving forward.”

Rodriguez’s performance was in contrast to that of another legendary player in Uruguay’s Luis Suárez. Bielsa threw Suarez on with 23 minutes remaining in a bid to find the elusive goal that would take the match to penalties. Suarez had his opportunities too. He had a wide-open look at goal in the 72nd minute, only to hit the outside of the post. He had a chance to create danger two minutes later only to shank his touch over the end line when he had considerable space in the box.

It was one of many situations in which Lorenzo got the better of Bielsa. For a time, the Colombia manager continued to play with two forwards after Munoz’s sending off, before resorting to a five-man back line late, as Colombia began to tire. Lorenzo’s side actually came closest to scoring, but substitute Mateus Uribe squandered a pair of wide-open chances late. It didn’t matter. Colombia survived. As for Lorenzo, he refused to look at the match as a contest of managers.

“I think that to beat Bielsa you need to walk many miles,” he said. “He is a revered coach and I really admire him as a person, and it was our turn to win.”

If there was anything to take a shine off the game, it was the post-match melee in which several Uruguay players went into the stands to battle Colombia fans after they felt their family members were in danger. The apparent lack of sufficient security will certainly go down as another instance where CONMEBOL’s poor organization of the tournament was revealed. The image of Nunez comforting his child will be one of the enduring images of the tournament.

Now Lorenzo, an Argentine, finds himself going up against the country of his birth in the final. He mentioned that his friends have been talking about the possibility. But Lorenzo has been laying down some Colombian roots for some time. He was an assistant with Colombia for seven years under Jose Pekerman during one of the stops the two made together, and he’s been in charge of the senior team since 2022.

“I think it will be a very beautiful moment,” he said of Sunday’s final. “I will be next to players that I have known throughout my career and really admire.”

As for the team itself, this is new ground to a degree. Los Cafeteros have but one Copa América title to their name, from back in 2001, and were beaten finalists on one other occasion in 1975. The semifinals have been a veritable graveyard, however. Seven times previously Colombia has fallen in that round, including three years ago when Argentina beat then on penalties on their way to the title. At last, the semifinal hoodoo has been vanquished. There’s just one more hurdle to go.

“Colombia has always played it to win. Anything can happen,” Lorenzo said. “Argentina is the best team in the world, champion in America, intercontinental champion, champion of the world. But we will try.”

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