Despite all the conspiracy theories, Argentina passed through their semi-final against Paraguay without any of their players who were on yellow cards picking up a second one and so are unaffected by suspensions for the final. With Sergio Aguero seemingly fully recovered from the muscular problems that led to him being rested for the Jamaica game, the only doubt is the centre-back Ezequiel Garay who was forced to withdraw from the side shortly before the semi-final win over Paraguay with a stomach bug.
Alexis Sanchez should be fit despite concerns over fatigue, but Chile will be without Gonzalo Jara, suspended for prodding Edinson Cavani between the buttocks in the quarter-final. There are two major selection questions for the Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli. Does he carry on with Jose Rojas as Jara’s replacement in the centre of defence? And who does he play at left-back, having tried Eugenio Mena, Miiko Albornoz and Jean Beausejour so far?
There have been the best two sides in the Copa America. They’ve scored the most goals, had the highest percentage of possession and generally just played the best football, even if it took Argentina until the semi-final to catch light.
Both have kept three clean sheets, yet neither have looked entirely comfortable at the back. Chile have won just six of 85 meetings with Argentina and, although they did beat them 1-0 in Santiago in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, both games in qualifying for 2014 finished in Argentinian victories.
The doubts over who will start at left-back for Chile are a particular concern given whoever is selected will come up against Lionel Messi who, at last, produced the performance Argentina have been waiting for in the tournament in the semi-final win over Paraguay, having a part in all six goals. He’s completed more than twice as many dribbles in the tournament as anybody apart from Jefferson Montero and more key passes than anybody other than Jorge Valdivia.
Even he seems concerned by his run without a goal from open play – 918 minutes now for the national side, but when he’s setting up six goals a game it hardly matters. The most likely way for Sampaoli to try to stop Messi is to make sure his left-sided midfielder, Charles Aranguiz, operates effectively as an auxiliary full-back, but that has a knock-on effect for Chile’s attacking play; Aranguiz’s late runs have been a vital feature so far.
Even if Chile do somehow manage to stop Messi, Argentina have other routes of attack. Chile have the shortest squad in the tournament, at just 1.76m per player, and have won fewer aerials than anybody about form Bolivia and Ecuador. Argentina, by contrast, have won a little over 60% of all aerials they’ve contested, by far the highest percentage.
It’s easy to imagine the likes of Garay, Demichelis or Nicolas Otamendi getting on the end of Messi deliveries. If the game does degenerate into a nervous scrap, Argentina still have the edge.
Jorge Valdivia, now 31 and apparently reformed after his wild past, has been the surprising key for Chile, his intelligent passing creating opportunities for Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas, the split forwards, and for Arturo Vidal and Aranguiz running from deep.
He made less of an impression against Peru in the semi-final as Josepmir Ballon closed him down. His battle with Javier Mascherano at the front of the Chilean midfield is likely to be key to how much penetration Chile have.
Argentina are more varied and, at this stage, the arc of their tournament looks to be one of a side hitting form at just the right time. After hitting the woodwork twice against both Jamaica and Colombia, suddenly the ball started hitting the net against Paragauy.
They have Messi, Javier Pastore and Angel Di Maria in form, plus the threat from set-plays. Against that, Chile have their pressing game, Valdivia and Vargas in form and Sanchez looking a little weary. Vidal, meanwhile, hasn’t hit the heights since his car crash. That the vast majority of the crowd at the Estadio Nacional will be supporting Chile is a factor, but this does not seem an Argentina team to be cowed by such matters.
They’re shaky at the back, but so too are Chile, and that makes the 2.05 available for Argentina to win in normal time look attractive. It might be worth looking as well at Otamendi, who saw a header brilliantly turned onto the post by David Ospina in the quarter-final against Colombia, to score at any time at 13.00.
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