RIO DE JANEIRO: Fireworks could be in store when reigning champions Chile and record 15-time winners Uruguay meet in the Copa America on Monday at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium.
It will be the fourth edition running of the oldest continental competition in international football in which the South American rivals meet and memories are still fresh of the controversy surrounding their stormy 2015 clash.
Uruguay, then the reigning champions, finished the quarter-final encounter in Santiago with nine men after Edinson Cavani and Jorge Fucile were given their marching orders in a 1-0 defeat.
Cavani’s dismissal was the most controversial as he received a second yellow card just after the hour mark for flicking a hand into Chile defender Gonzalo Jara’s face.
Cavani, though, was left incensed as Jara had appeared to shove a finger up the forward’s backside prior to his reaction, and his misdemeanour went unpunished.
Uruguay defended doggedly after that but fell to a Mauricio Isla winner 10 minutes from time.
And tempers boiled over in the final minute when Fucile was given his marching orders, sparking a mass confrontation involving players and officials from both sides.
Cavani and Jara were both hit with two-game bans over the earlier incident while Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, who entered the field during the late melee, was suspended for three matches for insulting the referee.
It wasn’t the first time that Jara had been involved in a controversial sexual assault on a Uruguay player. In 2013, he and Luis Suarez had a running battle on the pitch in a World Cup qualifier.
Jara may not be able to spark a ruckus this time around, though, as the 33-year-old is no longer a regular starter.
And Paris Saint-Germain forward Cavani has prefered to focus on the challenge ahead rather than past quarrels.
Claiming top spot in Group C is what’s at stake, with Chile needing only a point to secure that, which would also be enough to ensure Uruguay’s place in the quarter-finals.
“We know that Chile have a well drilled game plan, we’ve known it for a long time: they’re well oiled,” Cavani said on Saturday in Rio.
“We know what kind of rivals Chile are,” he added.
Uruguay have a far better record than Chile in the teams’ head-to-heads, winning 18 times to just seven in previous Copa America matches.
But Chile have won the last two, going on to lift the Copa America in both 2015 and 2016 — their only two continental triumphs.
Whoever wins the group will play either Peru or the third-placed finisher in Group B in the quarter-finals, and that could be Argentina.
But Cavani says potential future opponents will have no bearing on how either side approaches the match, particularly with Colombia awaiting the second placed finishers.
“When you take to the field the only thing you want is to win,” said the 32-year-old.
“It’s after the match that you start looking at and studying the next match.”
Both sides might be missing key players for the clash with full-back Diego Laxalt and midfielder Matias Vecino injured for Uruguay.
Chile, in the meantime, have doubts over their two main stars, Manchester United forward Alexis Sanchez and Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal.
In their all-time record, Uruguay have won 42 of 78 matches between thew two sides, with 18 draws and as many Chile victories.
Many of those matches have been dirty affairs with fights amongst players, foul play and even punch-ups in the stands.
With what’s at stake and recent history to boot, Monday’s Maracana encounter could prove combustible.