It’s the final thought most likely ahead of the competition and the one most neutrals will have desired: hosts Chile, seeking a first ever international title, will take on the pre-tournament favorites, Argentina, for the Copa America trophy in Santiago on Saturday. And the pressure for both to deliver the silverware will be phenomenally intense.
For Chile, it surely represents their best ever chance to end their long wait for glory. Not only are they playing in front of a passionate home support, but they have a great generation of talent at their disposal. Included among that is a spine of the team excelling at some of Europe’s biggest clubs -- Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez. But, while that trio has been influential, Chile’s success, and in particular its run to the Copa America final, has been helped massively by players of lesser reputations producing their best in the colors of their country.
Two of those players stepped up big in the knockout rounds. First, Mauricio Isla, who has featured little for Juventus since joining them in 2012 and spent last season being relegated from the Premier League while on loan at Queens Park Rangers, scored the only goal in a tense quarterfinal with Uruguay. And then his teammate last season, having been loaned out repeatedly by Napoli, Eduardo Vargas, rescued a nervy Chile with two goals in a 2-1 semifinal win over Peru.
It is a team where the collective and the system is the star. Ironically, Chile’s high-pressing, thrilling brand of play, was installed in them by an Argentinian, in Marcelo Bielsa, and is now being continued by his disciple and compatriot Jorge Sampaoli
In contrast, the Argentina team is one bristling with star power, with the task for coach Gerardo Martino simply to try and maximize their influence. Through much of this Copa America that ambition has struggled to come to fruition. Despite featuring a team containing Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Ángel di María and Javier Pastore, and with Gonzalo Higuaín, Carlos Tevez and Éver Banega among those available from the sidelines, Argentina scored just four goals through its first four matches.
Still there was a sense, especially in a quarterfinal with Colombia that somehow finished goalless after 90 minutes despite Argentina laying siege to the opposition goal, that the dam was about to break. Sure enough, it did so spectacularly in the semifinals. Messi put on a playmaking masterclass, assisting three goals and playing a part in the other three, Pastore backed up a fine season at Paris Saint-Germain while Di Maria put a wretched first season at Manchester United behind him with two goals as Argentina beat Paraguay 6-1.
The task now is to repeat that level and perhaps even improve upon it when the title is on the line against Chile. Having lost last year’s World Cup final to Germany after extra-time, this could be the last great chance for a brilliant generation to finally deliver some senior silverware and end Argentina’s own drought, which, improbably, dates back to 1993.
Since that time, Argentina has won the Under-20 World Cup an incredible five times, with the 2005 generation leaving the greatest mark. Indeed five of Argentina’s first-choice starting lineup in this tournament -- Messi, Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay -- played in the win over Nigeria in the final a decade ago.
Messi has been among the Argentinean contingent stating that he would give everything to win this Copa America. But for Chile, too, the chance to overcome a history of near-misses, including four Copa America final defeats, is at stake. At the Estadio Nacional on Saturday, something will have to give.
Prediction: So much of this final depends on the how both sides handle the occasion and the pressure. Will Chile be inspired by the home support and the chance for national immortality, or will they continue to show the edginess on display in their semifinal? On the opposite side, will Argentina now play with freedom after finally getting among the goals, or will the fear of losing another major final stifle their attack?
From a physical standpoint, both teams have the attacking weapons to hurt defenses that have shown signs of vulnerability. And if Argentina are at their best then they could really pick holes in a Chile backline that is often left exposed. Yet, Chile have played with a sense of destiny and a powerful will throughout this competition and, combined with their devotion to their coach’s system, that could see them edge what has the potential to be a thrilling final.
Predicted score: Chile 2-1 Argentina
Date and time: Saturday, July 4 at 4 p.m. EDT