Chile keep Lionel Messi at bay in defence of Copa America crown
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Chile successfully defended their Copa America title on Sunday night, beating Argentina on penalties in a rematch of the 2015 final that also went to spot kicks after a scoreless draw. Francisco Silva converted the decisive attempt for the hosts after Lionel Messi and Lucas Biglia missed for the Albiceleste, which has now lost in the final of a major tournament for the third consecutive summer. Here are three quick thoughts on the match.
1. Chile deserved the win
Before this one-off "Centenario" edition of South America's continental championship, few thought that the Chileans had much hope of retaining their crown. Although Sunday's win came on the coin flip of penalties, La Roja did more than enough over the past month to show that their success as the hosts last year wasn't a fluke or the result of home-field advantage. Make no mistake: this team is the real deal, and Chile proved it by high-pressing Argentina from the first to the 120th minute, relinquishing just two real scoring chances and making their more decorated opponent's life excruciatingly uncomfortable throughout.
"This is the first [Chile] team that has been able to get up to the level of Argentina, Germany and Spain," midfielder Marcelo Diaz, who was sent off in the first half at MetLife Stadium after picking up two yellow cards, said on the eve of the match. "This didn't used to be normal for Chile."
Diaz added that the ultimate goal for Juan Antonio Pizzi's team was to win the World Cup. Chile have global stars such as Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal at their disposal and a hardworking, team-first supporting cast that is consistently greater than the sum of its parts; those who count them out at Russia 2018 will do so at their peril.
2. Misery for Messi and co
The indelible image of Argentina's latest failure will be the spot kick Messi skied over Claudio Bravo's crossbar and the inconsolable figure he cut afterward, but Gonzalo Higuain's first-half miss had a far greater impact on the outcome. Higuain, who entered the match on the back of a two-goal performance against the U.S. in last week's semifinal and who scored 36 goals in 35 games for Italian club Napoli in 2015-16, was gifted a golden opportunity to give his team an early lead 21 minutes into the match.
The chance came about after one of the only mistakes Chile made all night: Higuain stripped midfielder Gary Medel 30 yards from goal and raced in alone on Bravo's net. But Higuain appeared to rush his shot, sending it wide of the left post. One of the questions coming into the match was how Argentina would handle the pressure of avoiding a third consecutive final loss (in addition to last year's Copa loss, the Albiceleste were also beaten by Germany at the 2014 World Cup). The answer? Not well. Gerardo Martino's team looked tentative from the start, and those nerves were manifested on this play by Higuain, who also missed chances in both of the previous final losses.
3. Man in the middle front and center
Given the stakes and the familiarity between these teams -- Sunday's encounter was the fourth meeting between Argentina and Chile in less than a year -- the match was always going to be filled with contempt. Indeed, the tackles flew in early and often once the whistle blew. If the 16 fouls whistled in the first half weren't at all unexpected, the way Brazilian ref Heber Lopes handled the physical play was.
Not only did Lopes hand out five cautions and two red cards in the opening 45 minutes alone, his decision to expel Chile midfielder Marcelo Diaz for a questionable second yellow less than a half-hour in following a trifling foul on Messi changed a game that deserved so much better.
The early, controversial sending-off foreshadowed an inevitable makeup call. Sure enough, it came just before half-time, when Argentina defender Marcos Rojo saw red for a hard challenge on Arturo Vidal, one replay showed Vidal had sold. Lopes issued only three cards after the break. But with all-world players like Messi (who was correctly booked for a first-half dive) and Vidal reduced to play-acting and mass confrontations around Lopes after almost every call, it's a shame the man in the middle stole so much of the spotlight.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.