SANTIAGO, Chile — A nation could barely watch, but Alexis Sanchez, given his third chance to win the Copa America, accepted it, scuffing an attempted Panenka but deceiving goalkeeper Sergio Romero anyway to give Chile a 4–1 win on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw. For Chile, the 99-year wait for a first-ever international trophy was over; for Argentina, the 22-year drought goes on.
It had been a game that, after a bright start, had degenerated into a bruising, physical encounter in which fluent play was at a premium. Chances were rare—there were a couple of snap-shots from Sanchez and Ezequiel Lavezzi squandered a break with an overhit cross, but essentially this was an ugly midfield scrap.
Here are three thoughts on Chile's win:
The Messi factor
All week, Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli had been locked away with videos while players have spent time on a PlayStation4 trying to work out a way to check Messi’s influence. His solution was to switch to a back three, using Marcelo Diaz, who tends to play as a deep-lying midfielder, as a libero, with Osasuna’s Francisco Silva brought in for Jose Rojas and Gary Medel used to close down Messi. To a large degree it worked, even though Medel was booked for catching Messi in the midriff, seemingly unintentionally, with a slightly wild swing at a dropping ball, and both Diaz and Silva had joined him in the book by halftime.
Argentina’s coaching staff was furious at Chile’s aggression (although Jorge Valdivia took his share of knocks) as a game that began brightly degenerated into something a lot scrappier.
The line, though, was at times extraordinarily high. Messi had commentated after the Paraguay game that the difference in that one compared to the much tighter affairs against Uruguay, Jamaica and Colombia had been the early goal that made Paraguay push out and leave space in behind it. Chile offered that to Argentina from the beginning. At times it was two vs. two at the back, and when the attacking pair are Aguero and Messi, that is hugely risky; at other times, though, even Valdivia was back making tackles. Mati Fernandez did an even better job in extra time.
Chile centerback Jose Rojas had said before the game, “Nobody would leave any meat off the barbecue,” and they didn’t. But Chile got away with it. This was Messi’s quietest game of the tournament—only 63 touches in normal time—and for most of the second half he wandered disconsolately on the right flank, shirt untucked. The gamble paid off and Sampaoli must take credit for that.
The attention given to Messi sadly didn’t end on the pitch, with members of his family having to be relocated to a television cabin at halftime after having objects thrown at them, with reports that his elder brother Rodrigo was punched.
The disappearance of Arturo Vidal
For the first five days of this tournament, there was no question who the best player had been. Arturo Vidal had won and converted two penalties, scored with a header and sent in the cross for a headed goal from Eduardo Vargas. Then he took that ill-fated trip to a casino, crashed his Ferrari on the way back and was arrested on charges of drunk driving. After all the outcry over whether he should have been allowed to carry on at the tournament, his impact was much diminished. His passing in the final was wayward and, when a chance presented itself late in the second half, he seemed tentative and allowed Nicolas Otamendi to make a tackle. He did, at least, score his penalty in the shootout.
The failed redemption of Gerardo Martino
All four semifinalists were coached by Argentines, and the slightly cruel joke was that Argentina had the worst of them. Martino is a quiet man, not one for the touchline histrionics of Sampaoli, and his reputation has perhaps suffered for that. But he did a fine job with Paraguay four years ago, leading an average side to the final (albeit without actually winning a game) and then, playing a far more open and fluid style, taking Newell’s Old Boys to success in the Torneo Final in 2013. Only at Barcelona did he really take a step backwards, and even that was perhaps explicable given the difficult circumstances in which he took over and his lack of experience in Europe.
There has been skepticism at his record with Argentina, but the performance in the semifinals against Paraguay was probably Argentina’s most fluent in a competitive game since Jose Pekerman’s time. Claudio Bravo, the Chile goalkeeper, noted before the game that, “We’re just trying to win a trophy, not playing to be the best in the world,” hinting at the extra task that faces any Argentina manager. Winning with this group of forwards isn’t enough; there must also be beauty and glory. That’s the extra pressure on any Argentina manager, and it was too much for Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista and, in some ways, Alejandro Sabella who, although he led Argentina to the World Cup final, never had his side produce particularly fluent football.
This wasn’t a great vindication of Martino. He had spent his spare time before the final watching Prison Break, but he couldn’t escape from Sampaoli’s stifling tactics.