Copa America 2016

Football: Messi's 3rd major title try

Argentina's players train ahead of the Copa America Centenario final against Chile in East Rutherford, New Jersey. They are intent on avenging last year's penalties defeat to the same opponents.
Argentina's players train ahead of the Copa America Centenario final against Chile in East Rutherford, New Jersey. They are intent on avenging last year's penalties defeat to the same opponents.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Argentina superstar needs Copa triumph to silence dissenting voices in his own nation

NEW YORK • Lionel Messi will bid to gild his legacy as the greatest footballer of his generation by ending Argentina's 23-year wait for a major title in a much-anticipated Copa America Centenario final against holders Chile.

For Messi's many millions of admirers, the five-time World Footballer of the Year has already achieved enough in his glittering career to be considered in the same bracket as Pele and Diego Maradona.

Yet the big hole in the Barcelona superstar's CV - a major tournament title with Argentina - is invariably cited as a justification to delay his elevation to football's pantheon.

That could all change tonight before a sell-out crowd of 81,000 at East Rutherford's MetLife Stadium, where Argentina face the Chileans in a rematch of last year's Copa America final.

It is the third final in as many years for Messi and his team-mates, who suffered agonising defeats in the 2014 World Cup final against Germany and to the Chileans on penalties in Santiago last year.

On each occasion, Messi has borne the brunt of the backlash from critics in Argentina, who trot out a familiar laundry list of grievances: He has no passion. He does not sing the anthem. He does not "feel" the shirt.

Messi is not above being angered by the criticism.

"I get annoyed by the people who attack you without thinking," he said in a recent interview. "We got to two finals. We didn't win. What can you do? But we got to the final. It's not like we lost in the last 16."

So far in the United States, Messi has shown no sign of being overburdened by the pressure to end Argentina's wait for a title.

After missing Argentina's opening group match on June 6 - a 2-1 win over the same opponents Chile - he scored an electrifying 19-minute hat-trick against Panama after coming on as a substitute,

Then he equalled Gabriel Batistuta's goals record for Argentina in their 4-1 quarter-final win over Venezuela.

Against the US last Tuesday, he scored a magnificent curling freekick to become his country's leading international scorer with 55, and set up two more goals in a magical all-round display.

Yet while Argentinian fans - and many neutrals - will be willing Messi to victory, Chile have shown that they are more than capable of pulling off another ambush.

Since the opening loss to Argentina, the Chileans have improved with each game to compile their best run of results since Juan Antonio Pizzi replaced Jorge Sampaoli as manager in January.

They humiliated Mexico with a 7-0 thrashing in the quarter-finals and polished off Colombia 2-0 in the semi-finals.

"They attack and defend with great intensity, and if you make a mistake, they can punish you," Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said after the semi-final loss.

A dynamic, combative midfield led by Bayern Munich star Arturo Vidal will ensure that Argentina's skilled attackers such as Messi, Nicolas Gaitan and Ever Banega have nothing like the freedom to operate they have enjoyed so far.

And Chile's razor-sharp attack, which features tournament top scorer Eduardo Vargas (six goals) and Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez, should also pose more questions than Argentina's back four has been required to answer en route to the final.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ARGENTINA V CHILE

Singtel TV Ch141 & StarHub Ch213, tomorrow, 7.55am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Messi's 3rd major title try'. Print Edition | Subscribe