Winning Copa America on home soil a morale boost for Brazil on their quest for World Cup glory
One of the great things about football is that every game unfolds in a different way. The same two teams can meet each other twice and produce different narratives. Thankfully for the final of the 2019 Copa America, the second meeting between Brazil and Peru proved very different from the first.
In the group game in Sao Paulo, Brazil steamrolled their way to a 5-0 victory. Little more than two weeks later, and a 45-minute flight away in Rio de Janeiro, they had things much harder, with the outcome in doubt until near the end of their 3-1 victory.
Before the kickoff, there was a minute's silence in Maracana Stadium for Joao Gilberto, the bossa nova maestro who died the day before. A football fan, Gilberto would often watch games while gently strumming on his guitar, reacting to misplaced passes with a grotesque combination of discordant notes.
Moments of this match, though, would have inspired some more tuneful chords. One, for example put Brazil in the lead.
Dani Alves, even at 36 such an important part of the side, passed long down the right flank. Gabriel Jesus picked up, shimmied his way outside his marker and crossed to the far post, where opposite winger Everton scored with a superb, first-time finish. Just as in the first game, Peru had been undone down the flanks. It was the first goal in a Copa America final since 2011, and it became the first Copa America final in which both sides scored since 2004.
Peru had shown their resolve right from the start. The key question for their attacking aspirations was whether they would be brave enough to get men up the field in support of centre-forward Paolo Guerrero. In the opening exchanges, they played high up the field, and before they went behind after 15 minutes, they had enjoyed most of the play.
In the group game, they folded as soon as they went behind. This time, they stuck to their guns, stuck to their plan and found themselves on level terms, scoring the first -- and only -- goal Brazil conceded during the course of the competition. It came from a penalty, perhaps harshly awarded for a handball by Thiago Silva, whose arm was on the ground as he threw himself to the floor to block a dangerous attack. But the striking thing was the way Peru had forced the situation by committing men forward. The combination of Edison Flores and the lively Christian Cueva had pierced Brazil's defensive line. For their boldness, Peru deserved to be on level terms, and Guerrero coolly struck home from the spot.
There is a reason Brazil under Tite have lost just two games in almost three years -- the World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium and a friendly against Argentina when an experimental side was fielded. Tite has a more modern approach than his compatriot coaches. Much of Brazilian football has become reactive, defending to interrupt the game. Tite is more proactive. The defensive balance of his team is achieved not only through the individual quality of his back line; Brazil seek to swarm around the ball in the place where it is lost. Tite wants his team to regain possession as early as possible, and this was vital in the second goal, a swift response to the Peruvian equaliser.
Roberto Firmino lost possession with his back to goal, but he chased back and just managed to nick it away and into the path of Arthur, who sensed the situation, realising that Peru could be caught on the wrong foot, relaxing at the back after thinking that the ball was theirs. Arthur surged forward, and played a lovely little pass into the path of Jesus, who had made an intelligent move to his left. One on one with the goalkeeper, Jesus produced a subtle finish inside the far post. It was just before half-time, and Brazil had conjured a goal worthy of winning the title.
But they ended up having to do it the hard way.
There is a downside to the defensive work done by the strikers. They can apply themselves with more enthusiasm than skill to their defensive tasks, especially in a high-pressure occasion such as a final. The coach had already warned Jesus to calm down when he was sent off with a little more than 20 minutes remaining. The second yellow card may have been harsh, but Jesus' first was for a badly mistimed tackle. For all his protests, he was off, and Brazil had to defend their lead with 10 men.
Off came Philippe Coutinho, replaced by Eder Militao at right-back, with Alves pushed into midfield. Tite then sought to protect his right flank. An alarm had just come down that side when Peru left-back Miguel Trauco got in behind the line, but the angle was narrow, and Alisson made a routine save. As Peru's pressure mounted, a corer was cleared to Flores, who chested down and volleyed narrowly wide.
Brazil were biting their nails, until the hero of the campaign came good once more. Perky left winger Everton cut in on goal, the ball seemed likely to end up in the arms of the goalkeeper, and so the foul by Carlos Zambrano was unnecessary. But a foul it was, and Richarlison stepped up to the penalty spot and sealed the title for Brazil.
Brazil, then, retain their record of winning every Copa they have hosted. A generation of Brazilian players have had an unmatched opportunity to win titles at home: the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Olympics and now this Copa. All went to the hosts, with the exception of the one that really matters. And in time, this new triumph will have to be placed in the context of the buildup to the big one, the 2022 World Cup.
There is much to celebrate -- beyond, of course, the title. The defensive balance of this Brazil side looks better than it was last year. The emergence of Arthur is important. He skipped through the midfield giving a man-of-the-match performance, and has a vital role to play in the future of the side.
Alves, though, cannot go on forever and does not appear to have a natural replacement. More options are needed at centre-forward. The side in possession have not reproduced the exuberance of the World Cup qualifiers in the second half of 2016 and all through 2017.
The big test, as recent years have made clear, is provided by a Western European team in the knockout stages of the World Cup. That test will surely come along again in Qatar. But winning the 2019 Copa America is a nice morale boost along the way.