Lionel Messi will lead out Argentina in Saturday’s Copa America final aware it could be the last opportunity he has to win silverware with La Albiceleste – and ending that hoodoo against Brazil would be the sweetest prize of all.
Messi holds the records for most caps and goals for Argentina, and his career at club level with Barcelona has ensured his legacy will be intrinsically linked to the sport for the rest of time.
But there remains a niggling frustration with respect to his time with Argentina, given he is yet to win a major international tournament with them. It is arguably the final piece of the puzzle and the one thing that separates him from the others in the ‘greatest of all-time’ debate.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele, Diego Maradona – they all enjoyed success on the international stage, and while it would be unfair to suggest Messi’s legacy will not match up to theirs without honours with Argentina, it is a fact that would be continuously used to downplay his claim regardless of winning everything at Barca.
It is not that Messi has not come close – this will be his fifth major senior final with Argentina, and he’s lost the previous four, but will Argentina be considered among the favourites at the World Cup next year? Probably not.
It may be now or never, and standing in the way is his former Barca team-mate Neymar, who will be playing his first major final for Brazil.
The Paris Saint-Germain star has been typically enthralling to watch in the tournament, though Brazil will be hoping his form in front of goal improves. It has not done them much damage thus far given they are in the final, but his one non-penalty goal comes from an xG (expected goals) value of 5.1 – it’s two from 5.9 with penalties included.
No one else in the tournament has been as wasteful as Neymar, whose eight Opta-defined ‘big chances’ missed is also the most of anyone at Copa America 2021.
But Messi will know more than most that Neymar rises to the biggest occasions, and few are bigger than a Superclasico in a Copa America final.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Brazil – Lucas Paqueta
While Paqueta’s club career may not have taken off in Europe as he would have liked following his initial move to Milan, it is fair to say this tournament has represented something of a ‘coming of age’ tale for him on the international stage. With two goals, he heads into the final tied with Neymar as the Selecao’s leading goalscorer, while he’s also been a creative threat. Granted, he may not have any assists yet, but his 1.56 xA (expected assists) is bettered only by Messi (2.93) and Neymar (2.34). He has been let down by poor finishing, but at least the chances are flowing.
Argentina – Lautaro Martinez
Along with Messi (four, including one penalty), Martinez (three) is the only player to have scored more than twice at this year’s tournament. Although he is slightly underperforming his 3.3 xG and has missed five ‘big chances’, the Inter striker has been consistently dangerous, with his 0.88 xG per 90 minutes second only to Neymar (1.03) among players to have played at least 180 minutes.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– Brazil will be playing their seventh final in the last 11 editions of the Copa America, winning on their most recent five appearances in the showpiece game (1997, 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2019). Their last defeat in a Copa America final was in 1995, losing the title to Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out.
– Brazil have not lost a knockout match at the Copa America (W7 D6) since 2001, when they suffered a 2-0 loss against Honduras. Their eliminations since then came via penalty shoot-outs (2011 and 2015) or in the group stage (2016).
– Brazil have reached the final in all editions of the Copa America played on Brazilian soil (six, including 2021). They won each of the previous five.
– Argentina will be playing their sixth final in the Copa America since 1993. It will be the third time in this period that they have played for the title against Brazil, failing to win against them in the past two deciders between the teams.
– Messi has scored five times against Brazil, making them his joint second-favourite opponent after Ecuador (six goals).