Argentine great Lionel Messi, dragged the Albiceleste over the finish line against Colombia in a pulsating penalty shootout to set up a dream final against Brazil – his fourth, and probably last, Copa America final.
Messi, captain and leader of his national team has been in four finals with the Albiceleste, including the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, but has never won a title with them so, at 34 and with him entering the winter of his career, this may be his now-or-never moment to silence his critics.
He was in the team that lost to Brazil in 2007, and twice to Chile on penalties in 2015 and 2016. This is his fourth Copa America – and fifth overall – final in the national colours.
Brazil, host and favourites to win the title, are Sunday’s opponents so it will require extra effort from Messi to inspire his team to victory in the final.
Enroute the final, both sides have been the best two and easily steamrolled their opponents to be the last teams standing. Argentina easily won their group, beating Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia after their opening day draw against Chile. In the process, they scored seven goals and conceded two.
Brazil, on the other hand, were more dominant as they scored 10 goals and conceded two in decisioning Venezuela, Peru, Colombia before settling for a draw against Ecuador.
In the knockout stages, Argentina pummelled Ecuador 3-0 in the quarter-finals before the gruelling penalty shootout win against Colombia while Brazil recorded slim 1-0 wins over Chile and Peru in the quarter-finals and semis respectively.
Messi has underlined his determnation to make this a glorious hurray for himself by leading the stats. His four goals are the most by any player and he’s also recorded five assists – a tournament record – to lead on that chart also.
Aware of the significance of this final, particularly against Brazil which crushed them 3-0 in Messi’s first Copa America final way back in 2007, Messi is delighted to be in this final and to be playing it against arch-rivals Brazil.
“We are both in the final. It’s going to be the final we were all hoping for, it’s going to be very close, very difficult,” Messi admitted after the semi-final win over Colombia.
“We achieved our first objective, which was to play every game. Now we will try to win the final.”
Interestingly, Brazil captain Neymar had already stated prior to Argentina’s tie against Colombia that he hoped Messi and co. would advance to meet the host team in the final.
“I know Neymar said it because he’s a good guy, it’s the final we were all waiting for,” Messi noted. “We’ve achieved the first goal. We have a goalkeeper [Emi Martinez] who is a fantastic player.”
Messi is both his country’s highest appearance-maker and their all-time leading scorer, but he’s not been able to translate the brilliance at youth level, where he won the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, finishing the tournament with both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe, and an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics, to the senior team.
If he goes on to win the Copa America final this time, he would have cemented his place in the pantheon of Argentine soccer legends.
But will he be fourth-time lucky or will it be another (final) heartbreak for La Pulga Atomica?