As it turned out, Argentina didn’t even need him to dispatch co-favorites Chile 2-1 in their Copa America Centenario opener in the Bay Area on Monday night, thanks to second-half goals by Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega.
The most anticipated game of the group stage was a rematch of the final of last year’s actual Copa America, wherein Chile finally won the thing after trying for 99 years and Argentina lost a second major tournament final in a row, after it came up short in the World Cup a year earlier.
In a predictably aggressive and muscular game between two of the five highest FIFA-ranked countries in the world, the hype proved justified. For the first time in this Copa, we saw a good and entertaining and freewheeling game of soccer. It was about time, as the first seven games had mostly disappointed – other than Mexico’s emphatic win over Uruguay on Sunday.
In just the second minute, Argentina’s Nicolas Gaitan got his head onto a cross but nodded it off the crossbar. And then Marcos Rojo headed Di Maria’s corner kick just wide.
At the half hour, Sergio Romero made the first of several saves that would prove essential in the Albiceleste’s win when he denied Alexis Sanchez.
Chile again made a bright start to the second half. But in the 51st minute, Argentina won the ball high in midfield, as it would several times to spring counterattacks. Banega conquered the ball and dispatched Di Maria, who beat goalkeeper Claudio Bravo at his near post.
Then, eight minutes later, Argentina forged an eerie replica of that goal with yet another razor-sharp counterattack. Only this time Di Maria served it up and Banega finished it from almost exactly the same spot – again at Bravo’s near post, only this time with a deflection off the tip of Mauricio Isla’s cleat.
The Argentines began cycling through substitutes later in the second half, but they never stopped pressing for a third goal, even as they were bringing on such scrubs as Sergio Aguero and Erik Lamela. This underscored the absurd depth at Tata Martino’s disposal. And it illustrated a big difference with Chile, which relies heavily on Sanchez and midfielder Arturo Vidal, neither of whom had terribly influential games.
Those two have to drag their feisty Chilean teammates to whatever big games they’ll win. But Argentina has an embarrassment in riches when it comes to attacking weapons. That, after all, is why they’re the favorites to finally win major silverware for the first time since 1993.
Yes, Chile got its consolation goal in injury time, when Jose Fuenzalida jumped highest on a cross in a scrum and headed past an overcommitted Romero.
But the Argentine win was deserved. And that claim as the team to beat in this tournament was only reinforced on Monday.