On Saturday evening in Santiago's Estadio Nacional, Argentina and Chile will play more than just a simple game of football. For the hosts, the clash represents finally making their mark with a major international trophy after decades of close calls. For the Albiceleste, the Copa America means just as much.
After the disappointment of losing out on the World Cup last July to Germany's extra-time goal, a repeat is now unthinkable. It is time for Lionel Messi and his national team colleagues to finally step up and break a painful 22-year trophy drought, unheard of in the country's illustrious history.
Alfio Basile was the last Argentina coach to bring home a major title. The ex-Racing Club star won the Copa America on consecutive occasions back in 1991 and 1993, at a time when following two straight World Cup finals and two wins out of the last four, the Albiceleste were bathed in glory. From that flood came lean times.
Daniel Passarella, Marcelo Bielsa, Jose Pekerman, Basile again, Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista and Alejandro Sabella all passed through the bench without tasting success. Wonderful players like Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Hernan Crespo and many more would be automatic choices in any team, but they will always carry the asterisk of international failure for their compatriots.
The likes of Messi and Javier Mascherano are desperate to ensure their own careers will not carry the same mark. That is why Saturday's final means the world to the team directed by Gerardo Martino.
"We got to the World Cup final, now the Copa América final, we want to win it. It doesn’t matter if I score, as long as the team does," Messi stated, per The Guardian, following Argentina's crushing 6-1 win over Paraguay to reach the decisive clash. Despite winning every title going so far in 2015, the captain wants more, and victory is everything against Chile.
In many ways, Chile-Argentina is the dream final for neutrals. In a tournament unfortunately marked by the negative spoiling tactics of nations with fine football histories, notably Uruguay and Brazil, these two teams have led the way in refusing to compromise offensive principles. Both Jorge Sampaoli and Gerardo Martino learnt from the master of attacking football, El Loco Bielsa in Rosario, and have carried his teachings into two of the most entertaining international teams on the planet.
While predictions are always fraught with danger in games of this magnitude, it at least seems clear that a lot of goals can be expected. For that reason, Argentina's defence will have to be stronger than ever to resist the red tide.
Save some nervous moments against Paraguay in the opening Group B match, the Albiceleste back line has been a virtual spectator for much of this Copa America, as teams have sat back and tried to hold on. But Chile will be a different prospect. In Jorge Valdivia, Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas, Sampaoli can call on an offence almost as potent as their opponent's. Additionally, the hosts will be heartened by the way Argentina folded under insistent Paraguay pressure to concede the only goal of the semi-final.
Chile love to push all the way from the rival goal line. Martino must make sure slips like that that led to Lucas Barrios' strike do not occur. The return of Ezequiel Garay, still a doubt following a bout of gastroentercolitis, per the Buenos Aires Herald, is still not certain, but the Zenit man is key to the organisation and strength at the back.
In the 1991 Copa America, an attacking Albiceleste line-up fired by the budding partnership of Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia—aided brilliantly by Leo Rodriguez, who stepped into Diego Maradona's enormous shoes at No. 10—played some fantastic football on the way to the title. Now the class of 2015 must hit those same heights. The Paraguay win sent a warning to South America, and it is time for a final push to lift the trophy and end this most painful of dry spells.