SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With Lionel Messi confined to the bench, Angel di María and Ever Banega stepped up for Argentina to give them a measure of revenge over Chile and a 2-1 win to open their Copa America Centenario campaign. Just 11 months after a penalty shootout gave Chile victory in the 2015 Copa America and a first ever international title, Di María and Banega each provided a goal and an assist in the space of nine second-half minutes to take Argentina to three points, despite the latest of consolations headed in from substitute Jose Pedro Fuenzalida.
The status of Argentina’s and the world’s greatest player had dominated the buildup to the match, with Messi recovering from a back injury and flying back and forth to Spain for a tax fraud trial. When the eagerly anticipated team sheet did arrive, Messi was placed on the bench. But, having not appeared for the pre-match warmup, it was clear there was little intention of risking the Barcelona star in the first match of Argentina’s latest attempt to end a trophy drought dating back to 1993.
As it was, there was, despite the occasional and vociferous pleas from large swathes of a sold-out 69,451 crowd in Santa Clara, California, to do so, never any cause for temptation for Gerardo Martino to use his star man.
"Our possibilities of winning the Copa America are always higher when he’s playing with the team," Martino said of Messi in his post-match press conference. "What we need to do is to respond the same when he’s not; we didn't do it versus Ecuador last November, but we did it versus Colombia and Chile [in World Cup qualifiers] and tonight."
Indeed, it took less than two minutes forthe man who replaced Messi in the starting lineup, Nicolas Gaitain headed against the top of the Chile crossbar.
Chile survived that scare but there were signs that they were being beaten at their own game. Under Jorge Sampaoli, it was the high pressing and lightning transitions that took them to glory on home soil last summer. But, following the Argentine’s departure at the start of the year, that thrilling rhythm has yet to be recaptured under replacement, Argentine-born Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Flashes of that old magic appeared on Monday, particularly in a wonderful intense first half. Chile’s best opening came from a Ramiro Funes Mori giveaway, allowing Alexis Sanchez to be found on the edge of the box, only to be denied by a fine one-handed save from Sergio Romero. Too often, though, it was Chile who were sluggish, especially in the center of midfield, and Argentina with the sharpness to take advantage.
It is now four defeats in five games under Pizzi, two of them, following a World Cup qualifying reversal in Santiago in March, to Argentina. On Monday, it was Argentina’s ability to win the ball back in the opposition half and drive forward with pace and clinical efficiency that saw them victorious.
Di María had been the danger man early on, twice being fed in behind down the left after turnovers. For some reason, Martino opted to switch Di María to the right after that early flurry, but at the start of the second half he was back where he began and in brilliant and decisive tandem with Banega.
First, six minutes after the interval, Charles Aranguiz, so often in the past Chile’s chief dynamic presence, was robbed by Banega, who fed Di María with a perfectly weighted through ball. Di María, fresh from a sparkling debut season at Paris Saint-Germain, made no mistake, drilling past Claudio Bravo at his near post and celebrating by paying tribute to his grandmother who died just hours before the match.
Soon an almost replica move, with only the personnel reversed, put Argentina firmly on the road to victory. This time it was Di María who made the feed and Banega, with the help of a deflection off Chile right-back Mauricio Isla, got the better of Bravo, who was beaten once more at his near post.
Pizzi later bemoaned two costly mistkes for his side's loss, believing they had been there opponents' equal otherwise. Yet worryingly for Chile, the scoreline could have been more emphatic.
At times Argentina tore through their center at will. Gonzalo Higuain, getting the start up front, was denied by the legs of Bravo, while Marcos Rojo, arriving on the end off a deep cross from substitute Sergio Aguero, headed wide. The only blot on Argentina’s copybook was an error from Romero in the third minute of injury time, coming a long way from goal and failing to get near the ball to allow Fuenzalida to make the scoreline a little more palatable for the defending champions.
Speaking after the match, Martino said he expects Messi to be in condition to play against Panama on Friday. Against Chile there was enough to show that, even without Messi, Argentina have the more than enough quality to make them favorites in this tournament. With Messi, they may be hard to stop.