Will Chile’s ferocious team ethic be enough to overwhelm the greatest player alive? Ian Walker previews the 2015 Copa America final
The 2011 Copa América final was contested between Paraguay, a team that had not scored a goal after the group stage, and Uruguay, who continually punted the ball as far away from their goal as possible as if it was carrying the plague. Unsurprisingly, the game finished 0-0 with Uruguay claiming the title on penalties. It was a defensive, dull cherry on top of an almost unwatchable cake.
Four years later, and the continent’s two most committed attacking sides are set to square off in the final in Santiago on Saturday. Chile, under the direction of the Bielsan prophet Jorge Sampaoli, are looking to clear the cobwebs out of their trophy case and claim their first title. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi and Argentina are looking to end a drought of their own, with Argentina having not won a senior title since the 1993 Copa América.
These are two sides whose commitment to attacking football is born not only out of ideological purity but also due to a lack of depth and quality in defense. Chile has played with a back four of Mauricio Isla, Gary Medel, the now suspended Gonzalo Jara and Eugenio Mena. Isla and Mena’s strengths lie in attacking down the flanks, while Medel is usually a defensive midfielder and Jose Rojas is as unremarkable as they come. Add the fact that no one in the backline is over 5’9, and that Chile often send seven or eight players into attack, and it is not hard to imagine the attacking triumvirate of Di Maria, Aguero, and Messi running riot.
But, on the other hand, Argentina is no rock. The backline of Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo all play at top European clubs but are often left exposed by the players in front of them. Javier Mascherano is one of the best anchormen in the world, but Di Maria, Aguero, Messi, and fellow midfield partner Javier Pastore are not renowned for their defensive work-rate and could just as easily let a player go unmarked as win back the ball. Lucas Bigglia, the third member of the Argentine midfield triangle, has had a solid tournament but is also likely to leave Mascherano and the defense exposed.
Argentina will likely be happy to allow Chile to come forward, urged on by what is sure to be a fiery atmosphere of support and the obligation to carry out their manager’s ideals, leaving plenty of space for the best forward line of any national team in the world to blow Chile away on the counter. However, as Sampaoli showed against Spain in last summer’s World Cup, his team can play without as much possession as they are used to and instead use their high-intensity press to win the ball back quickly and transition to attack before the defense can set. After all, Argentina may have blown away Paraguay in the semi-final, but Sampaoli will have seen how uneasy the Argentine team looked at times trying to play its way out of the back against an average team. With that in mind, he is like to tell his team to turn the dial up to maximum in the beginning of the game to press Argentina into a mistake and force Messi and co. to play catch up. If it is the other way around, Chile face the suicidal task of being even more committed to attack than they already are, playing Russian roulette with a revolver filled with Messi, Aguero, Di Maria, Pastore, Tevez and so on.
Despite the home-field advantage and friendly calls from officials so far this tournament, Chile are still the underdogs. Marcelo Bielsa and now Jorge Sampaoli have worked hard to root out the inferiority complex and sense of fatalism in the Chilean team, but the fact of the matter is that Argentina have a more balanced, more talented team. Chile has the advantage on the touchline, and in the stands, but having the greatest player in the history of the game negates many of these advantages, especially when he is in his prime. Chile may be desperate for the first title to cling to, but beneath the stoic expression of Messi lies a desire just as great to capture a title for Argentina. If he does, he can claim something Maradona never did; win a Copa América for Argentina. Then, the next World Cup is only three years away.