Football: Brazil exorcise Paraguay penalty demons to reach Copa America semi-finals

Brazil's Gabriel Jesus (second from right) celebrating after scoring his penalty to defeat Paraguay in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on June 27, 2019.
Brazil's Gabriel Jesus (second from right) celebrating after scoring his penalty to defeat Paraguay in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on June 27, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

PORTO ALEGRE (Brazil) (AFP) - Gabriel Jesus scored the winning spot-kick in a tense penalty shoot-out as Brazil exorcised their demons to beat Paraguay on Thursday (June 28) and reach the Copa America semi-finals.

Jesus had missed a penalty against Peru in their last group game and said he went back to his tried and tested technique on Thursday.

“In the last game I didn’t look at the keeper and I hit it hard straight away and the goalie made a good save,” he added.

“Today I did it my usual way, I looked calmly at the keeper and I could see him moving to the left and I side-footed it the other way.”

Twice before in 2011 and 2015 Paraguay had beaten Brazil at this same stage on penalties at the South American extravaganza.

Willian came closest to scoring in regulation time for Brazil when he hit the post as Paraguay held out for a 0-0 draw for more than 40 minutes following the dismissal of Fabian Balbuena for a professional foul on Roberto Firmino.

Brazilian media had been almost in a state of paranoia before the match recalling the painful memories from Argentina in 2011 and Chile four years later when Paraguay produced stubborn defensive displays before snatching victory in the spot-kick lottery.

But it wasn't to be this time as Brazil goalkeeper Alisson saved Gustavo Gomez's opening spot-kick at the Gremio Arena in Porto Alegre.

Although Firmino dragged his effort wide, Derlis Gonzalez also fired past the post allowing Jesus, who missed a penalty in Brazil's last match, to be the match-winner.

The tournament hosts will face either perennial rivals Argentina or Venezuela in Tuesday's semi-final in Belo Horizonte.

Brazil started brightly and produced a beautiful passing move in the fourth minute as local favourite Everton drove in off the left wing and found Dani Alves on the edge of the area. The full-back slipped the ball on to Firmino, whose weak shot was straight at goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez.

Gremio forward Everton's popularity was clear in his home stadium as fans wildly cheered his every touch.

But the game quickly settled into the expected pattern, with Brazil dominating possession and playing countless passes while a well-drilled Paraguay doggedly held their shape and looked to counter at pace with direct runners.

Brazil lacked a cutting edge and even when Philippe Coutinho seemingly played in Firmino behind the defence following a Richard Sanchez mistake, the Liverpool forward was easily muscled off the ball.

The best chance of the first half fell to Paraguay as Hernan Perez found Gonzalez unmarked at the back post, but Alisson saved his near-post shot.

It wasn't until five minutes from half time that Coutinho got in behind the defence on the left and fired a shotthat Fernandez saved comfortably.

Predictably, Brazil were booed off at half-time, for the third time in four matches.

Tite wasted no time in making a change, but it was a curious one swapping left-back Filipe Luis for Alex Sandro. After the break, Brazil were driving more purposefully at the heart of the defence, with Arthur flashing a shot over the bar.

It paid dividends on 54 minutes when Firmino won a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area - overturned from the original decision of a penalty by VAR - and Balbuena was shown a red card for a professional foul.

Dani Alves's fierce low free-kick was deflected wide, though.

Brazil started to pull Paraguay's overworked defenders out of position and Arthur forced Fernandez into a diving save before Jesus dragged an effort wide.

With Paraguay unable to pose any threat Tite withdrew his defensive midfielder Allan and threw on winger Willian, with Jesus pushed into the middle alongside Firmino.

Almost immediately, Jesus missed a gilt-edged chance from eight yards out before Firmino headed a Marquinhos cross wide.

Tite went for broke, bringing on attacking midfielder Lucas Paqueta for full-back Alves and it almost worked but Willian saw his low left-foot shot cannon back off the post sending the match into a tense penalty shoot-out.

"We created lots and lots of chances, the ball hit the woodwork, the goalkeeper worked miracles, but the fans helped us and we never gave up,” said midfielder Arthur.

“We know what football is like, it’s about small details, and we couldn’t win but we felt the good energies and we managed to get through on penalties.”

Goalkeeper Alisson, who like Arthur started his career in Porto Alegre, saluted his teammates.

“This is a team that deserved the win today,” Alisson said.

“It was a draw but against a team that didn’t want to play unless it was on the counter attack. We’ve gone up one step, two more to go to our objective, to be Copa America champions.”