At a specially arranged tournament, squeezed inconveniently into the calendar and without every team’s strongest squad, upsets might have been expected. Instead, the Copa America Centenario will conclude Sunday at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium with a rematch of last year’s final. And given the motivations for Argentina and Chile, it is perhaps no surprise that the two squads will meet again for South America’s championship.
For Argentina, there was never any doubt about how seriously it would take the competition. A long wait for a senior international title has become increasingly painful over the past two summers. Argentina suffered an extra-time loss to Germany in the World Cup final in Brazil, and Chile came out on top on a penalty shootout in last year’s Copa America final in Santiago.
That Argentina has not won an international crown since 1993 — when it lifted the last of its 14 Copa America titles — is one of soccer’s great stories of underachievement. In that 23-year span, the country has won the Under-20 World Cup a remarkable five times.
But the likes of Juan Román Riquelme, Hernan Crespo Juan Sebastián Verón and Pablo Aimar never delivered a senior prize. And now time is running out for the generation led by the perhaps the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi.
Five players involved when the Argentina won the most recent of its Under 20 World Cup titles in 2007 – Sergio Agüero, Ángel di María, Éver Banega, Gabriel Mercado and Sergio Romero – will be part of a lineup that takes on Chile on Sunday night. All are now 28 or 29 years old, right in their primes. Go back two years ago, when Argentina again lifted the Under 20 World Cup, and you can add Messi, 28, and 30-year-old midfielder Lucas Biglia to the list who reached the pinnacle at youth level and will be looking to claim a maiden senior title against Chile.
There is an expectation that this will finally be their time. Argentina has been the most impressive team throughout this Copa America Centenario, supremely focused from the start on seizing the opportunity at hand. They won all five matches, and emphatically so, by an aggregate margin of 18-2. Most recently, the Albiceleste blew away host nation the United States 4-0 in the semifinals.
Counting hugely in favor of Gerardo Martino’s team is that, unlike at the last two major tournaments, Messi is fresh and playing every inch like the best player in the world. A pre-tournament back injury now appears to have been a blessing, allowing the Barcelona star to ease into the tournament and save his fuel for when it really matters, with his first start not coming until the quarterfinals.
On top of that, there is a chance that the more subtly influential Di María, who missed the 2014 World Cup final due to injury and was forced off less than 30 minutes into the 2015 Copa America final, could recover from an abductor injury in time for Sunday. Only midfielder Augusto Fernández is definitely ruled out.
But with such expectation comes huge pressure. Messi has felt the brunt of failure more than any Argentinean of late, with the attacks on his performance against Chile last year fueling rumors that he could even walk away from representing his country. And legendary playmaker Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina to its last World Cup title in 1986 and with whom Messi is so often compared, has weighed in ahead of Sunday’s clash with a blunt message to the current squad.
“If you don't win, don't come back,” he said.
There is powerful incentive, too, for Argentina’s opponents. For Chile, last year’s win, sealed when Alexis Sánchez dinked home the decisive penalty, ended a centurylong wait for a first senior international title. But the arrangement of a 100-year celebration of the competition just a year later threatens to make Chile’s grip on the trophy short-lived.
It certainly looked set to be that way after Chile made an unconvincing start to the defense of its title. With the man who guided La Roja to that famous success on home soil, Jorge Sampaoli, gone, Chile lacked the brilliantly cohesive intensity early on under replacement Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Indeed, in its opening game of the tournament, Argentina came out on top in a manner far more convincing than the 2-1 scoreline suggested. The second game was little better, with a penalty deep into injury time from Arturo Vidal required to beat Bolivia. But then the pieces started falling back into place.
The attack clicked in a 4-2 defeat of Panama, even if the rearguard still left plenty to be desired, before everything came together spectacularly to wipe Mexico aside in a 7-0 quarterfinal demolition. It appeared that a similar drubbing was on the cards when Chile raced into a 2-0 lead inside 11 minutes of its semifinal with Colombia on Wednesday. Instead, Colombia gained a foothold. Combined with a half-time lightning storm that caused a delay of more than two hours and left the Soldier Field pitch deluged with rain, it meant an exuberant Chilean display turned into a solidly professional one, getting over the line.
More positives include that Vidal will be back from suspension and Marcelo Díaz quite possibly back from injury after the two influential midfielders missed the semifinal. The message is clear: this is a very different Chile to the one that was defeated by Argentina on June 6 in Santa Clara, California.
“The process that we have has been balanced. We had bad times, but with each passing match, the team has generated confidence and that allows them to perform at a level high,” Pizzi said after getting past Colombia.
Prediction: Last year’s final was a major disappointment, with both teams becoming not only cautious but afflicted by fatigue, producing a drab, goal-free 120 minutes. There is reason to believe Sunday will be different. Sure, both coaches will doubtless be aware of the opponent’s threats, but Argentina and Chile have played at their best in this competition, with intense pressing and breaking at lightning speed. There is the fact, too, that key players look fresher than 12 months ago. If both teams are close to their best, it should be Argentina that come out on top. More consistently impressive throughout the competition and with greater quality through its lineup and its squad, this could finally be Argentina’s time.
Predicted score: Argentina 2-1 Chile
Date: Sunday, June 26
Time: 8 p.m. EDT
Location: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey