Moment of truth for Messi as Copa final nears

East Rutherford (United States) (AFP) – Lionel Messi will bid to end Argentina’s 23-year wait for a major title later Sunday as his team faces holders Chile in the final of the Copa America Centenario.

A sell-out capacity crowd of more than 81,000 will flock to the MetLife Stadium to see if Messi can finally lead Argentina to a tournament triumph after two consecutive defeats in finals.

Argentina lost both the 2014 World Cup final and the 2015 Copa America final and are desperate to avoid a third straight loss in Sunday’s game, which kicks off at 8pm local time (0000 GMT).

The mood of determination in the Argentinian camp was summed up by coach Gerardo Martino in comments to reporters on the eve of the final.

Argentina and Messi have been in sparkling form en route to Sunday’s showpiece, rattling in 18 goals in five games.

But Martino said his team would be more than happy to sacrifice style for the substance of solid silverware.

“The only important thing is winning. How we do it is secondary,” Martino said.

“The only thing to worry about now is winning tomorrow’s game. The people want it, the players all want it, we all want it.

“And that’s why we’re willing to give our all to turn around last year’s result.”

Argentina were beaten on penalties by Chile in last year’s final in Santiago after 120 minutes finished level at 0-0. 

– ‘Can’t lose another’ –

Asked what conclusions he had taken from last year’s defeat, Martino replied: “What we can’t do is lose another final. That’s the biggest conclusion to draw.”

Messi, meanwhile, said Argentina had emerged a stronger team as a result of the various setbacks they had suffered in recent years.

“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.”

Messi, who became Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer with his 55th international goal in the semi-final win over the United States, will need to find a way through a fiercely combative Chilean side who are busily plotting another ambush.

Argentina defeated Chile 2-1 during the group stage earlier this month, but have improved steadily as the tournament progressed.

A 7-0 destruction of Mexico in the quarter-finals was followed by a clinical 2-0 dispatching of Colombia in the last four.

“They are a team that presses you, and don’t let you play,” Messi said in comments to reporters on Friday. “And when they have the ball they play very well.”

Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said “La Roja” would have a plan ready to contain Messi, making it likely that the spiky midfield qualities of Gary Medel will be deployed to keep the Argentinian captain in check.

“Playing against the most transcendental player in history is going to be no easy task,” Pizzi said on Saturday.

“We’re going to use whatever weapons we can to stop our opponent’s actions, and of course, within these strategies there is the question of Messi,” he added.

Sunday’s final brings the curtain down on the first Copa America to be staged outside South America.

The 16-team tournament comprising sides from throughout the Americas is being held to celebrate the centenary of the Copa America, which was first staged in 1916.

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