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Even without star Lionel Messi, Argentina defeats Chile in Copa opener
0:54 | Planet Futbol
Even without star Lionel Messi, Argentina defeats Chile in Copa opener
Tuesday June 7th, 2016

When Argentina and Chile last met in Copa America, it was last summer to decide a champion, and host Chile came out on top. It was Argentina's time on Monday, with the two neighboring South American nations opening Group D play in Copa America Centenario. 

Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega each scored and set up the other in an eight-minute span, as Argentina made an opening statement with a 2-1 win in front of a capacity crowd at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. 

Lionel Messi sat out the match, still recovering from a back injury suffered in Argentina's pre-Copa friendly against Honduras. He was said to be available off the bench, but with Argentina seizing control in the second half, forcing him into the match became unnecessary. 

Di Maria cracked the deadlock in the 51st minute, finishing off a feed from Banega on the counterattack and beating Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo at the near post. He returned the favor in the 59th, playing Banega into a similar position, and the Inter Milan midfielder had his effort take a deflection off Mauricio Isla to sneak by Bravo at that same post.

Jose Fuenzalida headed home off a free kick at the death to get Chile on the board, but Argentina goes to the top of Group D ahead of Panama–a 2-1 winner itself over Bolivia–while Chile is left in search of its first points during its title defense. 

Here are a few thoughts from Argentina's statement victory, its first step in hoping to end a 23-year trophy drought:

Messi was never going to play in this game

Call it gamesmanship, call it optimism, call it wishful thinking. Whatever it was, the posturing that Messi was going to play Monday was all for nothing. Look at the facts: After a lengthy club season with Barcelona, Messi was hurt against Honduras, suffering a painful back injury and just returning to training with Argentina in recent days. Between that, he flew across the Atlantic to Spain to testify in his tax fraud trial only to return right after.

Those are not exactly prime conditions to face a team like Chile, which plays with a degree of nastiness and could certainly translate that into making Messi's life miserable for the long haul. With a roster as loaded as the one afforded to manager Gerardo Martino, Argentina could afford to sit its superstar so early in the competition. Sorry, fans.

The Argentina faithful chanted his name throughout the match in Santa Clara, and they'll do the same on Friday in Chicago when Argentina faces Panama, but there was simply no need to rush Messi back. A few more days of healing will do his Player-of-the-Year body good, and he'll be in much better position to play with the added rest.

Without Messi, Argentina was just fine. His replacement in the lineup, Nicolas Gaitan, was an active ball hawk throughout, and Argentina played a clinical game in the midfield and on the counter. Scoring early in the second half (and then again so soon after) removed any temptation Martino would've had to turn to his superstar had the game been tighter. In short, the night couldn't have gone much better for the No. 1-ranked team in the world.

Di Maria's importance can't be understated

Argentina is loaded with talent. On top of that talent pyramid is Messi. But not too far beneath him sits Di Maria. It's easy to forget that his injury at the 2014 World Cup played a big role in Argentina's inability to score on both Netherlands in the semifinal and Germany in the final. He's innovative, skilled and decisive, and after being a creator of opportunities in the early going, he got his just reward with the opening goal in the second half. 

It wasn't a beautiful goal, but it was a smart run, a fundamentally sound dribble and accurate finish. Should Bravo have had his near post covered better? Absolutely, but Di Maria saw the opening, and he took it. He followed that with a smart run and set-up for Banega, who, again, didn't score a world-beating goal, but seized an opportunity and was not wasteful.

To cap it all off, Di Maria's emotional tribute to his late grandmother, who passed away Sunday night and to whom he was incredibly close, was absolutely touching. 

Argentina's defense holds Chile in final third

If there's a weakness for Argentina, it's the defense, which is a hodgepodge of players playing at elite clubs, but not exactly excelling there. That said, they came together as a unit Monday, preventing Chile from having much in the attacking third. A late lapse in focus as stoppage time had all but expired was all that kept Argentina from a clean sheet and a perfect night, but otherwise, positionally speaking, it was an impressive outing. 

The organization in the back and the sound goalkeeping of Sergio Romero should quell some of the doubts about Argentina's back four.

Highlights

After Gaitan hit the crossbar with a 12-yard header in the second minute, Manchester United's Marcos Rojo nearly put Argentina ahead in the 23rd minute, but he headed just wide of the mark off a corner kick:

Alexis Sanchez had Chile's first chance moments later. He had a clean look from about 15 yards, but Romero made himself big while well off his line and made the save:

Di Maria put Argentina ahead six minutes into the second half, with Argentina capitalizing on a midfield turnover. Banega's pressure forced the turnover, and he found Di Maria streaking down the left. The PSG star beat Bravo at the near post with a left-footed effort to open the scoring:

Eight minutes later, Di Maria fed Banega for the exact same result from nearly the exact same spot. Banega's effort was deflected by defender Mauricio Isla, and it beat Bravo at the near post again to make it 2-0 in the 59th:

Fuenzalida scored a consolation goal for Chile in the dying seconds, but it could prove to be useful should advancement come down to a goal differential tiebreaker:

Argentina will face Panama on Friday, while Chile meets Bolivia in the next Group D matches.

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