On Saturday, at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Copa America final will be disputed between Brazil and Argentina.
On Monday, Brazil created a plethora of goal-scoring opportunities but only converted one in an ironically lopsided 1-0 win over Peru in their Copa America 2021 semifinals match at Estadio Nilton Santos, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Yesterday, at Estadio Nacional de Brasilia, in Brasilia, Brazil, Argentina defeated Colombia 3-2 on penalties, after drawing 1-1 in regular time, to progress to the finals of the Copa America 2021.
The Super Clasico de las Americas, the bitterest, longest-standing national soccer rivalry in the world, the latest incarnation of which will captivate the globe on Saturday, July 10th at 8 pm EST, will decide the South American champion at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. There is no question these were the best teams in the competition, and CONMEBOL, FIFA, and many fans will be salivating at the prospect of Lionel Messi’s troops taking the pitch against Neymar’s buddies.
As opposed to the Euro 2020 competition taking place across the pond, with its outsized Danes of Destiny drama, its Group of Death implosion, and its super upsets of three of the top five FIFA ranked national teams in the world, this Copa America 2021 provided just enough classic matches (Uruguay-Chile, Argentina-Chile, Brazil-Colombia, Argentina-Colombia, Peru-Paraguay), and upsets (Colombia over Uruguay, Paraguay over Chile, Peru over Colombia) to make things interesting and keep fans on their toes, but it also delivered the final all had hoped for.
Brazil has been the class of the ten-nation tourney and has never entered the pitch looking like they were going to lose. Argentina has played just above the level of Chile and Uruguay who they beat 1-0 respectively, but not quite much better than Colombia who they squeaked by despite ample officiating largess.
Lionel Messi has been at his best and is the tournament’s scoring (4) and assist (5) leader. Neymar comes in third in scoring (2) after Lautaro Martinez (Argentina, 3) and second in assists (3). Argentina is 11-3 in goals for a +8-goal differential. Brazil is 12-2 for a +10-goal differential. On paper, the teams are pretty evenly matched, but when you add the manner of their wins you have to say the advantage is Brazil’s. The problem with prognosticating an archrivalry clash is that emotions often take over from mental, technical, athletic, or strategic considerations.
Messi, Scaloni, and Argentina
Messi has been on a quest to bring home his first senior national team international trophy and time is running out. After this Copa, he may well have Qatar 2022 as his last top-of-the-world hurrah. He is playing as if he knows this, and not Qatar, is his best chance to get that monkey off his back. He is looking to fill the Maracana Stadium with Argentine cheers.
Argentina has been playing as if this were their collective last chance—pulling out all the stops and performing with an intensity verging on desperation. They will have to temper that energy with some smart playing and be cognizant of the fact that Brazil is a full head and shoulders above all the competitors the Albiceleste have had trouble beating. Let’s hope they are able to accommodate with better play and not with unsportsmanlike behavior. This may sound harsh and one-sided but bear with me.
In the 2019 Copa America, after Brazil’s 2-0 win, Messi accused CONMEBOL, FIFA, and Brazil of hosting a tournament with a predetermined winner and stated that the host’s semifinals win was an officiating giveaway. His coach, Lionel Scaloni, used less strident terms at a subsequent press conference, to basically say the same thing. Let us hope we do not see a repeat of that behavior this time around. Recall, that many also believe this Copa, originally scheduled to be played in Argentina, was being so held in order to placate Messi and Argentina, and, many believe, to allow the hosts to host a tournament with a predetermined winner.
This tournament has had its share of poor officiating and, ironically, Argentina has been the recipient of plenty of leeway, particularly, as always, Messi has been treated with kid gloves. Who officiates the final will be a major factor in determining who wins the match—let’s hope it is an even-handed, fair, by the book referee who will draw the line at harsh, cynical, theatrical, professional, consistent infractions and at the over the top reactions they often bring about.
As far as this coming final is concerned, it must be said that Scaloni has a penchant for histrionics on the sidelines and his over-sized passion often infuses his players and staff with an added dollop of over-aggression, which added to their current psychological state is not ideal. He will have to be held in check by the officials, particularly when he, and sometimes his staff, choose to roam the sidelines well outside their coaching box to accost the fourth ref on every refereeing call that does not go their way. Let’s hope the fairly-played action on the pitch is the sole determinant of the match’s outcome.
Neymar, Tite, and Brazil
Neymar has been trying to come back from injury and media vilification to his previous perch as the inheritor of the Cristiano Ronaldo-Messi best player in the world legacy. Kilyan Mbappe, N’Golo Kante, Kevin De Bruyne, Robert Lewandowski, Paul Pogba, Gareth Bale, and Luca Modric notwithstanding, Neymar is the only non-CR7-Messi presence on the globe capable of turning a super-competitive, high-stakes, top-class contest on its head, and determining its outcome all by himself.
Brazil has been playing as if they are the rightful owners of this trophy and all others are just visiting. They have won with different formations, at times relying on their defense, at others creating goal-scoring opportunities at will, but they have also often been profligate with their chances, clumsy in midfield, and a bit leaky on defense. They will have to step it up on all fronts on Saturday, leaving out their penchant for unnecessary playmaking exuberance.
Tite is a calm if internally intense individual who is credited with melding a very talented team of individuals into a well-functioning, cohesive team unit. But he has been very experimental with this Copa, forcing his team to come to terms in real-time on the pitch, with the changes he has wreaked upon their lineup time and time again. For this match, at home but ironically devoid of the crowds that would have made hosting an advantage, he also has to figure out which of the umpteenth line-ups he has so far used works best upfront. His defensive five seem set as with but one or two modifications depending on injury or opponent, he has invariably gone with a four-man backline.
The last time these teams met was in the 2019 Copa America. The match was also in Brazil and the hosts won 2-0 in what was a semifinal match before going on to win the trophy. That match did feature Messi, but it did not feature the out-injured Neymar—this match will count with the talismanic striker, and he may well be the difference-maker on Saturday at the Maracana Stadium.