East Rutherford (United States) (AFP) – Lionel Messi will bid to gild his legacy as the greatest footballer of his generation here Sunday by ending Argentina’s 23-year wait for a major title in a dream final against holders Chile in the Copa America Centenario.
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 only hole in the Barcelona superstar’s CV — a major tournament title with Argentina — is invariably, and somewhat unfairly, cited as a justification to delay his elevation to football’s pantheon.
That could all change on Sunday before a sell-out crowd of 81,000 at East Rutherford’s MetLife Stadium, the home of the NFL’s New York Giants, when 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 teammates, who suffered agonizing 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 doesn’t sing the anthem. He doesn’t “feel” the shirt.
Barely a ball had been kicked in this Copa America before Maradona, a regular sniper, accused him of lacking “personality” and “leadership.”
– Don’t come back –
Maradona amped up the rhetoric this week shortly after Argentina booked their place in the final with a 4-0 demolition of the United States.
“We will certainly win on Sunday… and if we don’t win, they shouldn’t come back,” Maradona told an Argentinian television network.
Although Messi admits that losing another final would be a “great disappointment”, so far in the tournament he has shown no sign of being overburdened by pressure.
After missing Argentina’s opening group match — a 2-1 win over Sunday’s opponents Chile — he scored an electrifying 19-minute hat-trick against Panama after coming on as a substitute before going on to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina goals record in the 4-1 quarter-final win over Venezuela.
Against the US on Tuesday, he scored a magnificent curling freekick to become his country’s leading international goalscorer with 55, while setting up two more goals in a magical all-round display.
He even found the time to sign the shirt of an autograph-hunting fan who sprinted onto the pitch at the start of the second half.
– Messi determined –
His smiling, laid back demeanor however masks a fierce determination to lift the title, revealing that Argentina have become a more formidable unit since suffering the pain of multiple final defeats.
“We have grown a lot as a team in the past year, and as a result we are stronger,” Messi said.
“We’ve been in spectacular form up to now, now it’s up to us to do it again on Sunday. We don’t feel any pressure; we’re used to playing in finals — unfortunately we haven’t won one yet,” he added.
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 on June 6, 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 are a team that presses you, and don’t let you play,” Messi warned on Friday. “And when they have the ball they play very well.”
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.
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