Chile and Argentina scored the most goals of any teams in the Copa America Centenario, but in the Final on Sunday they just couldn't find a way to score in a wild and physical match. Both teams were down to 10 men by the end of the first half, and it ultimately took a penalty shootout to determine the winner, with Chile emerging triumphant again and leaving Lionel Messi and Argentina still in search of a major tournament title.
Only one word can adequately describe the first half of this match: chaos. Pure, unabridged chaos. From Ever Banega's hopeful opening-moments shot from range, to Gonzalo Higuain fluffing a sure goal and causing Gary Medel to crash into the goalpost in the process, to Marcelo Diaz being sent off, to Lionel Messi being booked for diving, to Marcos Rojo's controversial red card, the first half was a non-stop barrage of chaotic, emotionally-charged moments, with neither Argentina nor Chile willing to back down from each other no matter what.
But for all of that chaos, there was a very good performance happening out on the pitch as well. A physical, chippy match, to be sure, but a very good one, with both Chile and Argentina getting dangerous chances to score and playing well off the ball to try to neutralize one another. The chaos and the referee overshadowed the action, but that doesn't mean that everything in between the crazy moments wasn't excellent.
The second half started with a bit more calm, but quickly regained it's fire, with Jean Beausejour picking up a yellow just a few minutes into the half, and then both he and Arturo Vidal -- who had been booked in the first half -- playing with fire as they combined to bring down Messi a few minutes later. Given referee Heber Lopes' willingness to show yellow cards throughout the match, it was an enormously risky chance for the duo to take there, but fortunately for Chile neither man was shown a second yellow.
Chile took another blow in the 75th minute after a back-and-forth spell of play when Alexis Sanchez got caught hard by a high knee from Gabriel Mercado. The contact was accidental -- Mercado had leaped up for a challenge and his momentum carried him into Sanchez as the Chilean attacker crossed his path -- but Sanchez was clearly not quite right afterwards and struggled for a long period of play after receiving treatment.
Sanchez taking that blow seemed to send a charge into Eduardo Vargas, though, because he started to try to take things over for Chile's attack, forcing an excellent save from Sergio Romero just a few minutes after Sanchez was felled. With the minutes in regular time ticking away, neither side wanted to go to extra time or penalties, and Vargas started to try whatever he could to make sure the game ended in Chile's favor.
The best chances in the final minutes of regulation fell to Argentina, however, though they couldn't manage to do anything effective with it. Sergio Aguero had a wide-open look at goal that was a simple finish away from putting Argentina up 1-0 with just a few minutes left to play -- but completely messed up his chance, putting the ball in the stands instead of the back of the net. A few minutes later it was Ever Banega's turn to sky a chance, though at least his shot was challenged a bit more sternly than Aguero's effort was.
Then, just as the second half got into stoppage time, Chile had a brilliant attack snuffed out right in front of goal, and Lionel Messi broke free on the counter attack. It was the kind of sequence we've seen from Messi so many times in his astounding career, and one that we're well used to seeing end in a goal -- but on Sunday night, he pushed his shot wide instead of snapping the back of the net.
That left the game fated for extra time, and the aggression got turned up about five notches, both in terms of how both teams went forward and in how they went into challenges. You could hardly turn around without seeing a player doubled over in pain, all from hard tackles and ankles raked by cleats and encounters with high forearms.
Chile had the first great chance to score in extra time when Vargas got a diving header at the end of a counter attack that Sergio Ramos saved out of pure instinct. The Argentine goalkeeper was hardly even able to see the ball coming in as the play developed, but still somehow got himself in position to snatch the ball out of the air. Claudio Bravo wasn't interested in being one-upped by his rival at the other end of the pitch, making an absolutely absurd save on a shot from Lionel Messi that looked like it was sure to go in.
The match had opened up dramatically at that point, with delightful end-to-end action -- but Chile were dealt a serious blow just before the end of the first half of extra time when Alexis Sanchez had to be subbed off. He'd been trying to deal with his earlier injury and had created a couple of sparkling moments after it, but it was clear that he was not playing at 100 percent, and finally he had to come out of the game because of it. Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi elected to make the change a conservative one, putting on an extra defender to try to secure his back line with both sides playing a man down with just 15 minutes left to go in the match.
The second half of extra time was fairly open, but fatigue slowed the proceedings down significantly. Both Chile and Argentina had their chances to score, but couldn't get that extra bit of effort together to take full advantage of them, dooming the match to a penalty shootout. Sergio Romero tried to set a triumphant tone for Argentina with a huge save on Arturo Vidal's effort on the first spot-kick, but that quickly turned to shock when Lionel Messi pushed his penalty wide.
Both sides would sink their next two penalties, but Chile got a huge advantage when Jean Beausejour sunk his penalty and Claudio Bravo saved Lucas Biglia's effort to put them up 3-2. Then it was all up to Francisco Silva was Chile's fifth penalty taker -- and he made no mistakes, sending Romero the wrong way and burying his shot in the far corner to win the Copa America for the second straight year.
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Otamendi, Ramiro Funes Mori, Marcos Rojo (red 43'); Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega (Erik Lamela 111'); Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain (Sergio Aguero 69'), Angel di Maria (Mattias Kranevitter 57')
Chile: Claudio Bravo; Mauricio Isla, Gary Medel, Gonzalo Jara, Jean Beausejour; Charles Aranguiz, Marcelo Diaz (red 29'), Arturo Vidal; Jose Fuenzalida (Edson Puch 79'), Edu Vargas (Nicolas Castillo 109'), Alexis Sanchez (Francisco Silva 103')
Three things we learned
International finals and Gonzalo Higuain still don't get along
Higuain has been playing very, very well for Argentina all tournament long, scoring a brace in each of Argentina's two knockout round matches and helping carry the attack when Lionel Messi was out in the group stage. But memories of Higuain missing huge chances in major international finals in each of the last two summers still lingered, and we didn't have to wait long at all to make it huge missed chances in three straight finals.
A mistake from Gary Medel sent Higuain clear through on goal with only Claudio Bravo to stop him. Just as he was rounding Bravo, Higuain decided to get cute and went for a chip instead of cutting in for an easier finish -- and he pushed his shot just wide. It may not have been a missed sitter like we've seen in past years, but it was still a bad, bad miss, and one that will haunt Higuain for awhile for the missed opportunity it represented. It seemed to weigh on him, too -- the remainder of his time on the pitch before being subbed off for Kun Aguero was easily Higuain's worst spell for Argentina throughout the Copa America.
Marcelo Diaz got sent off for making a very stupid decision
The match turned on it's head just before the half hour mark when Diaz was sent off for fouling Messi to break up a counter attack for the second time in less than 15 minutes. Both fouls were screamingly obvious and well deserved yellow cards, so there's no arguing with the referee's decision -- but there is plenty of argument to be had with Diaz and his decision making.
The first foul was fine. Blatant perhaps, but fine. If Diaz hadn't stopped him the numbers Argentina had going forward and the position of Chile's defenders and midfielders scrambling back probably would have seen that sequence end in a goal. The second, though, was indefensible -- Messi didn't have nearly the same support, and Chile were much better positioned to stop anything coming forward. Making that foul while already on a yellow was an immensely stupid decision by Diaz, and he put his team in a huge lurch because of it. Fortunately, the referee made sure Argentina weren't a man up for long enough to take advantage, but that doesn't make Diaz's actions any better.
Can we talk about Lionel Messi?
Earlier in the Copa America Centenario, Lionel Messi was outstanding. The hat trick off the bench in his first appearance was amazing, featuring three high-quality goals. Since then, he's been just as good, carrying Argentina almost as a one-man wrecking crew. But tonight against Chile, he was a long ways off from that level of quality, and the Albiceleste suffered for it.
Sure, Messi drew the fouls that got Diaz sent off. He had a few good passes and tries at goal from free kicks. But otherwise? He was a mess. Turnovers galore, missed passes, missing runners, poor pressing off the ball, running blindly into cul-de-sacs of defenders -- it was a bad, bad, bad night at the office for the world's best player, and it couldn't have come at a worse time given the importance of the match. His miss at the end of the second half only typified his struggles, putting a shot wide in a situation that we're far more used to seeing him score with ease -- and his miss in the penalty shootout was a very sad way to cap a miserable night for Messi.