Having fallen just short of the final hurdle at last summer’s World Cup, Saturday’s Copa America final represents a second chance for Lionel Messi to finally lead Argentina to major silverware. On Wednesday in the semifinals, the Barcelona man was on-song as Argentina handed out a 6-1 thrashing to a very good Paraguay side.
For the first time we saw Tata Martino’s team open up and play the kind of expansive, attacking football we’ve been longing to see from the Albiceleste. While not finding the back of the net himself, Messi notched a hat trick of assists as goals rained in from Angel Di Maria, Javier Pastore, Marcos Rojo, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero. The fact that Argentina could have five different goal-scorers in a match where Messi doesn’t even get on the score sheet speaks to the depth of this team.
But standing in Argentina’s way is a host nation team that’s been the best in the tournament so far. Chile, like Germany last summer, started off well and has only improved in this summer’s Copa. Although admittedly, manager Jorge Sampaoli’s team required a little more graft, and a couple of favorable calls from the referee, to find its way past Peru into the final. It was not Chile’s best performance in this tournament but a double from Eduardo Vargas was enough to see them past a Peru team that only pulled one back thanks to an own goal from Gary Medel.
Like Argentina, Chile has come through the tournament undefeated, but the host nation has been rocked by scandal on and off the pitch. Star player Arturo Vidal cracked up his Ferrari and lost his license in a drunk driving incident. Meanwhile Gonzalo Jara was dropped from the team after a bizarre incident in which, to put it mildly, he prodded Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani in the backside.
But the scandals should not detract from the fact that this is one of the best Chilean sides ever assembled. Having reached the final of the Copa America for the first time in its history, the Chilean team will have the support of a nation behind it as it contests the final on home soil. But despite its host nation status, in the face of the overwhelming firepower of Argentina, Chile will need command performances from star players like Vidal, Vargas and Alexis Sanchez if it is to win its first Copa America.
On the opposite side, the onus will be on Messi who, despite putting home from the penalty spot earlier in the tournament, hasn’t scored a goal in open play for Argentina for over a year. But while he was credited with just three assists, the Albiceleste captain had a hand in all six goals against Paraguay. Even if he doesn’t score and Argentina loses the final, his performance against in the semifinal alone would still probably garner him player of the tournament honors.
Speaking to the press this week, Messi remarked “I hope to God my goals are being saved for the final.” And as we know from his performances with Barça this season, when Messi gets into this sort of mood, it seems only God can stop him. While Chile has put together an impressive string of performances on the road to the final, stopping a rampant Messi and triumphing over a stacked Argentina side that seems to be peaking at the exact right moment is another matter.
And while it’s been 22 years since they last won the tournament (Messi was six at the time), history favors the Argentines, who’ve never lost to Chile in the Copa America and won the tournament the previous four times Chile hosted it.