EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On the eve of Argentina’s latest attempt to end a 23-year wait for a senior international title, coach Gerardo Martino had little interest in discussing the agonizing near-misses of the past, including last year’s Copa America final defeat to Chile in Santiago. The same teams will face off once again for the trophy Sunday, this time in New Jersey. And asked what one thing he learned from that penalty shootout defeat 12 months ago, Martino was straight to the point.
“We can’t lose another final,” he said in his final press conference at MetLife Stadium.
Indeed, this is the third consecutive summer in which Argentina will compete in a major final, having been edged out by Germany in extra time at the climax of the 2014 World Cup.
Argentina’s route through the Copa America Centenario, which has seen South America’s championship move outside of its home continent for the first time to mark its centenary, should certainly breed confidence that it can be third-time lucky. In its very first match of the competition in Santa Clara, California, three weeks ago, Argentina came out on top against Chile in a 2-1 victory.
Since then, Argentina has won four more matches by an aggregate score of 16-1. In the semifinals on Tuesday, Martino’s side swept aside host team the United States, 4-0, in Houston. One highlight was a brilliant free-kick from Lionel Messi, who has struck five goals in the tournament, despite not starting his first game until the quarterfinal, as he eased his way back from a pre-tournament back injury.
For Messi, the match represents another chance to add to his vast array of titles for Barcelona with one with his country. But he also has been in the spotlight for other reasons ahead of the match, like describing the Argentina Football Association as a “disaster” after the team’s flight from Houston was delayed Thursday.
But far more significant for Martino is that Messi, who looked physically spent the last two summers, appears fresh and in form this time around. And the Argentina coach now believes the 29-year-old is playing at the same level for his country as he has done with such unnerving regularity for his club.
“I think for a long time now, he's been performing very well with the national team, many more positive performances than not-so-good ones,” Martino, who coached Messi for a season at Barcelona, added. “Like in Barcelona, he's been playing with the same people for a long time. It makes him feel good, happy and in a good place.”
Messi could be joined on the starting lineup Sunday by one of his chief collaborators, Ángel di María. The Paris Saint-Germain man starred in the first match against Chile, registering a goal and an assist, making it no surprise that Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi described him as Argentina’s most influential player after Messi.
And now, having been out with an abductor injury since that opening game, Martino has confirmed that Di María is in contention for the final, along with Javier Pastore, who has yet to play a minute in the tournament. Still, Pastore appeared to train separately from his teammates at the start of Argentina’s final training session Friday, and subsequently, midfielder Ever Banega’s place was thrown into doubt by muscle strain.
Whatever team he ends up fielding, Martino is expecting to take on an improved Chile side from the teams’ meeting June 6. While Argentina has been strong throughout the competition, Chile has very much grown into the tournament.
Defeat to Argentina made it four losses in his first five games in charge for Pizzi, who replaced fellow Argentine, Jorge Sampaoli, in January. From there, the team needed an injury-time penalty to see off Bolivia, before it began getting into gear. After beating Panama to seal a place in the quarterfinals, Chile showed its explosive attacking play of old to tear Mexico apart in a 7-0 win.
It was a similar performance in the first 15 minutes against Colombia that allowed Chile to grab two early goals, which it held onto for the remainder of the match and a two-and-a-half hour storm delay.
Chile now has a chance to win its second senior title in two years, after claiming none in its first 99 years of competition. For midfielder Marcelo Díaz, who confirmed he is fit to return for the final, it is the reward for years of hard work.
“We feel very well satisfied because throughout our football history, this is the only Chile team that has been able to face off against teams like Argentina, Germany and Spain,” he said. “We’re enjoying the fruits of what we've done for several years, getting the benefits of all that hard work. I don't doubt that, even if we’re not able to achieve our goals, we’re going to keep working because we want Chile to be one of the top teams in the world and keep aspiring to be world champions.”
Díaz and (almost all) the players who will feature against Argentina on Sunday have been in this position before, but for Pizzi, who was born in Argentina but represented Spain as a player, it will be something new. The former Valencia and San Lorenzo coach admitted that Sunday would be “Without a doubt, the most important match of my career.”
And he knows that in order to come out on top, he is likely to have to figure out how to stop Messi.
“Statistically, I think that playing against the most transcendental player in history,” Pizzi said. “It will be no easy task for us to be able to stop the statistics that Messi has been putting up. Despite these statistics, we think we are able to compete against Argentina and overcome Argentina, and we’re going to put in our full efforts to do so.”
Prediction: Martino said that it would be important for his side to apply pressure to Chile high up the pitch, and that could be crucial to the match’s outcome. In this Copa America, and especially against Chile in the first match between the sides, Argentina has profited from winning the ball back in the opposition half and storming forward with its electric forward players. If Martino’s men can repeat that strategy and intensity, then, with the more decisive quality they possess in the final third, they should finally be able to get their hands on some international silverware.
Predicted Score: Argentina 2-1 Chile
Kickoff Time: 8 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1, Univision