MENDOZA, Argentina, July 21 – Ten-man Paraguay beat Venezuela 5-3 on penalties to reach the Copa America final after regulation and extra-time produced a goalless draw.
Twice champions Paraguay will now meet Uruguay, chasing a record 15th title, in Sunday’s final in Buenos Aires, having reached the showdown drawing all five of their games.
But the Paraguayans rode their luck as they on Wednesday ended the surprise run of the Venezuelans, traditional whipping boys at this level, in the cruellest of fashions with Dario Veron hitting the match-winning spotkick.
Venezuela hit the woodwork three times in their first-ever semi and had a goal ruled out questionably for offside.
Paraguay also finished with ten men, playing the final 20 minutes of the extra half-hour shorn of the red-carded Jonathan Santana for a second bookable offence and furthermore had coach Gerardo Martino dismissed.
No sooner had they started the second period of extra-time than Veron should have suffered the same fate, for headbutting Nicolas Fedor.
Inexplicably, Mexican referee Francisco Chacon dubbed the incident only worthy of yellow.
That only served to deepen the sense of injustice for the Venezuelans and tempers boiled over at the end with a mass scuffle between both team’s benches to mar the occasion.
Venezuela coach Cesar Farias was emotional afterwards, saying his side could not be blamed for fraying tempers.
“We never look to provoke incidents,” Farias insisted.
“We came here convinced we could get through. We are not afraid of anybody and we go home with our heads held high – we cannot reproach anyone. We lost to an experienced rival.”
And he insisted that his country deserved more respect after proving they are no pushovers, this shootout being their only defeat of the event.
When the two sides met in the first phase a week ago they served up the match of the tournament to date with Venezuela snatching a 3-3 draw, coming from 3-1 down with two goals in the dying minutes.
This time it was a far different affair – yet the Venezuelans will wonder how they did not win long before the spotkick drama after a host of near misses with Paraguayan goalkeeper Justo Villar at times living a charmed life.
The Venezuelans were with without the suspended Tomas Rincon, sent off in the shock quarter-final win over Chile and a key figure in their run to the last four.
Coach Cesar Farias went with Giacomo Di Giorgi and the balance of the side did not appear to be disrupted as they produced some stirring attacking play while Paraguay went with their traditional containment recipe.
Paraguay, quarter-final conquerors of Brazil on penalties, had to leave experienced striker Roque Santa Cruz on the bench with a knee problem.
But they started as if they meant business with Nelson Haedo Valdez and Veron close for Paraguay early on, forcing Venezuelan keeper Renny Vega into action.
However, it was Venezuela who then began to dominate as Cesar Gonzalez floated over a cross from the right and an Alejandro Moreno header cannoned off the bar.
Oswaldo Vizcarrondo then headed in but had his effort chalked off for offside as Lady Luck failed to smile on the rank outsiders.
In extra time Fedor went close with a long-range effort deflected onto the post and incredibly, Venezuela then hit the woodwork again as Juan Arango smacked a freekick against the stanchion before Villar saved an acrobatic effort from Salomon Rondon.
Yet the goal would not come and in the shootout Venezuela’s dream died as Franklin Lucena saw his effort saved.