It’s supposed to be the tournament in which everything finally fell into place for Argentina, in which everything was almost the opposite of last summer’s World Cup. Leo Messi is in the form of his career, all of their other elite attackers are fully fit, and the field doesn’t contain a side as commanding as Germany. In terms of pure talent, Argentina are undeniably the finest in this Copa America.
Gerardo Martino’s side even finished top of their group, despite initially slipping with an opening 2-2 draw against Paraguay and never reaching their top level.
So far, so good. This, however, is where it suddenly gets highly difficult.
That first place position is precisely why things might have fallen out of place for Argentina. If they are to win this tournament, they will likely face a path that involves fixtures against Colombia, Brazil and hosts Chile. In other words: all of the other favourites, and arguably in ascending order of difficulty.
If the Argentines successfully navigate it, it may well be the hardest run any champion has ever faced.
There has basically been no winner from any of the last few major international tournaments that has had to so conquer the most intense concentration of quality that their competition would have allowed - and certainly not in the Copa America.
Defending champions Uruguay, for example, knocked out Argentina in 2011 only to then face Peru and Paraguay. Spain meanwhile avoided next-best team Brazil in 2010 and Germany in 2012. Perhaps the most challenging was France’s run to Euro 2000 but even that saw them avoid hosts Netherlands, who so calamitously missed four penalties against nine-man Italy in the semi-finals.
Runs from the quarter-final from recent champions:
Germany - 2014 World Cup: France, Brazil, Argentina
Spain - Euro 2012: France, Portugal, Italy
Uruguay - 2011 Copa America: Argentina, Peru, Paraguay
Spain - 2010 World Cup: Paraguay, Germany, Netherlands
Spain - Euro 2008: Italy, Russia, Germany
Brazil - 2007 Copa America: Chile, Uruguay, Argentina
Italy - 2006 World Cup: Ukraine, Germany, France
Greece - Euro 2004: France, Czech Republic, Portugal
Brazil - 2004 Copa America: Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina
Brazil - 2002 Word Cup: England, Turkey, Germany
Colombia - 2001 Copa America: Peru, Honduras, Mexico
France - Euro 2000: Spain, Portugal, Italy
Brazil - 1999 Copa America: Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay
France - 1998 World Cup: Italy, Croatia, Brazil
This isn’t to say that champions like that wouldn’t have been able to go so far in such a field. Peak Spain 2008-10, after all, seemed so far ahead of everybody.
It is that, first of all, most champions are lucky enough to have at least one knockout game that allows something at least close to a “breather” to steady themselves - Brazil against an overachieving Turkey 2002, Germany against an imploding Brazil 2014. Secondly, the reason we don’t really see runs like that is because they end prematurely because they’re too exacting. In something as brief as a month-long tournament, the demands become too great and emotionally exhausting, eventually sapping the side of the extra fire needed to go the distance.
This is arguably what happened to fine sides like Netherlands in 1998 (Yugoslavia, Argentina then Brazil) or Italy in 2000 (Romania, Netherlands, France).
It is even more pronounced with Argentina.
For a start, facing a team like Colombia is especially taxing for the quarters, and is basically the most difficult game they could have got on finishing in first place. Then, should Paraguay be beaten, Brazil offer a fixture that involves so much emotion, history and so many mental hang-ups. Argentina have been eliminated by the five-time world champions in four of their last five Copa Americas. It would be a huge psychological test. Finally, all going to plan, there would be Chile and all the emotional weight behind the hosts.
It is also not just the external challenges that these three teams represent for Argentina, given that they are all far from perfect. It is the accumulation of those challenges, especially against a side as imperfect as Argentina themselves.
Martino has yet to figure out a formation that actually maximises the talent of his players, and there is an argument that he actually minimising their qualities with an overly rigid approach. The coach has also complained about the “physical issues” of his team “towards the end of games”.
For a stumbling side who are currently just about getting by, it might be a bit too much to get by this likely series of games. History suggests that a historic moment for Argentina may not come. Then again, that might make it all the more historic.
If Argentina are to do it, it will not be because things have finally fallen into place. It will probably be because Messi and the rest of their stars have had to wring every last drop of commitment out of their quality.
Read more from Miguel Delaney