The Barcelona playmaker was joking with manager Gerardo Martino about their old club Newell’s Old Boys on the eve of the Copa America final against hosts Chile, and that reflects the relaxed mood around the squad.
The team seems content and confident in themselves in a way they weren’t in the World Cup a year ago. Then, there was a feeling they had to defiantly fight their way through to the final defeat to Germany, given they were far off top form and fitness.
Now, they have just put in their best performance in a generation, destroying Paraguay 6-1. The belief is they can fulfil a generation’s worth of talent too, and that many of the players who won the U20 world championship — including Messi and Sergio Aguero — can now win the country’s first major piece of silverware since the 1993 Copa America.
“We arrive at the final with excitement and confidence,” Messi said.
With Chile, there is no longer the same feeling, despite the national elation at reaching the final of their own tournament. That is possibly because their wait has been even longer. The hosts have never won any international trophy at all, and it has started to seem as if the full weight of that is now bearing down.
Chile had started this Copa in blistering fashion, playing by far the most exhilarating football, but that has gradually receded as the stakes have risen. There isn’t that same sense of self-expression in their play, and they were certainly much more panicked in possession in a nervy 2-1 semi-final win over Peru.
That anxious tension has developed alongside a new aggression to their game too. Previously revered as South America’s purists because of the expansive style, they have proven newly pragmatic in this Copa America.
Many in the country felt Arturo Vidal should have been thrown out of the squad for his drink-driving arrest during the group stage, but manager Jorge Sampaoli kept him in because of his importance. Defender Gonzalo Jara will miss the final, however, after receiving a suspension for the remarkable “probing” of Edinson Cavani’s backside in the quarter-final.
To their credit, Chile out-Uruguayed Uruguay in that 1-0 win with the way they unsettle their opponents through aggression and gamesmanship, but it emphasised the loss of innocence to their play and the increasing neurosis of their approach. That has been exacerbated in the last few days by Sampaoli, who is said to have almost locked himself away to think, such has been his “obsession” with figuring out a way to stop Messi. Chile have even been using Playstation 4 software to test different tactical formations. The talk has even been that he may sacrifice playmaker Jorge Valdividia, who has been one of their best performers, to offer better protection.
Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo emphasised they fear no-one, and their own game should be enough, but then emphasised the dangers of Argentina.
“The truth is that it is not easy, seeing the quality that Leo has and what he has done throughout his career, it’s been amazing,” the Barcelona keeper said.
“I think that our focus is the team — that as a team we can control Leo and the other class players.” At the same time, all of this might just foster the resilience that is necessary for Chile to finally win a trophy.
“We are prepared, we know how we have to play,” Bravo declared. “We have always tried to play and suffocate with our pressing.” It’s just Argentina don’t look suffocated either in play or in mood any more, as they did early in the tournament.
The suggestion from the camp has been that the narrow penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the quarter-final “released” them, that there was “euphoria” because all the unbelievable missed chances made them feel like they were fated to lose that match. They won it. They now believe all is in place to win the whole thing. Messi is on form and if he produces anything close to his semi-final performance, any Sampaoli tactic will be irrelevant. Argentina also have the presence at set-pieces to hurt Chile’s notoriously short back line, as well as an attack that looks like it has clicked.
Chile must rediscover their own verve. That is their best chance to disrupt Argentina’s confidence. It’s a big ask, but both countries have had to endure big waits. Today, one will end. A final step remains.
Bravo; Medel, Diaz, Silva; Isla, Vidal, Aranguiz, Beausejour; Valdivia; Vargas, Sanchez.
Romero; Zabaleta, Otamendi, Garay, Rojo; Biglia, Mascherano, Pastore; Messi, Aguero, Di Maria.