Copa America: Bubbly Lionel Messi excited to end Argentina's trophy drought

The feeling around their camp is that the time has come, a year after their defeat in the World Cup final to Germany

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The Independent Online

For the last three days, Chile’s manager, Jorge Sampaoli, has almost locked himself away, thinking about one thing: how to stop Lionel Messi.

It is an obsession greater than ending the country’s 99-year wait for a first trophy, but it could also be the issue that decides whether that wait will continue.

Messi is who today’s Copa America final in the Estadio Nacional will probably revolve around, and this is what Argentina hope their captain’s international career is building up to. If Messi plays anywhere close to his best, then any Sampaoli tactic will be irrelevant. The No 10 will win a first trophy in his senior international career, and Argentina will win a first senior trophy in 22 years.

The feeling around their camp is that the time has come, a year after their defeat in the World Cup final to Germany, and especially after they delivered what was probably their best performance in a generation, in the 6-1 semi-final win here, over Paraguay. The oddity is that Messi did not score in that match, and in this Copa has scored only in a penalty shootout, but he was still by far the best player on the pitch. The Barcelona playmaker orchestrated everything in exquisite fashion. Although Messi said afterwards he hoped he was saving all of his goals for the final, he was conspicuously thrilled in the mixed zone, in a way that is rarely seen from him off the pitch. That reflects the mood around the whole team.

 

It is as if a weight has been lifted. Argentina do not seem to be feeling the intense pressure in the way they did in the World Cup. That has been reflected in increasingly free-wheeling football. They are a transformed attack from the constrained team that started this tournament. “We arrive at the final with excitement and confidence,” Messi said.

With the Chile team, it is almost the opposite, despite the national glee at reaching the final on home soil. They started the Copa playing by far the best football, especially in the 5-0 group win over Bolivia, but that has gradually been ground down. The continent’s supposed purists have also become more pragmatic, in every sense. It began with the refusal to kick out Arturo Vidal for his drink-driving arrest, and continued with the remarkable controversy between Gonzalo Jara and Edinson Cavani in the 1-0 quarter-final win over Uruguay. The tension around that game was still evident in the semi-final with Peru, when Chile were anxious and panicky in possession, ultimately benefiting from generous refereeing decisions and an Eduardo Vargas wonder goal.

Now, Sampaoli is said to be fretting even more about Messi, and considering whether to alter their very defined attacking approach. The hope for the hosts is that just reaching the final will restore Chile’s confidence.

“We are prepared, we know how we have to play,” said their goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, a club team-mate of Messi. They also know the stakes. One of these teams will make history.

Probable teams: Chile (3-4-1-2): Bravo; Medel, Diaz, Silva; Isla, Vidal, Aranguiz, Beausejour; Valdivia; Vargas, Sanchez.

Argentina (4-3-3): Romero; Zabaleta, Otamendi, Garay, Rojo; Biglia, Mascherano, Pastore; Messi, Aguero, Di Maria.

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