Chile feeling the pressure as Argentina seek Copa revenge

Early next week Chile, with a new coach and an ageing squad, will take on Argentina, who might be without Lionel Messi. Tim Vickery explains the hurdles both teams face as they attempt to win the 100th anniversary edition of the Copa America.

Messi Chile

Source: Getty Images

When Leicester City celebrated their recent Premier League triumph, was I the only one who could not help feeling a little sorry for them?

This is not to belittle their extraordinary achievement. Quite the opposite. The problem is that they have arrived at the summit – unless, of course, they confound us all once more by launching a challenge to win the UEFA Champions League. 

The strong probability is, though, that last month will represent a professional high that the Leicester players will never experience again. They will want to hang on to that feeling for ever, but as time moves on it will become more and more elusive.

And as soon as preparation starts for the 2016-2017 campaign, Leicester City will be ‘last season’s champions’' condemned to live in the shadow of those months when everything came together.

It is now 30 years since Diego Maradona hit heights of performance that I have never seen from any other player – and when it really mattered, at the business end of the World Cup. The two goals he scored against England in the quarter final effectively turned him into a living god.

He had lived out an Argentine fantasy, and life would never be the same again. Anyone acquainted with the story of Maradona over the last three decades will be aware that he has not always proved easy for him to live in the aftermath of his finest hour.

A South American example that is closer to the experience of Leicester City is that of Chile. 12 months ago, after 99 years of waiting, they finally found a use for their trophy cabinet. In front of their own fans they won the Copa America, sending a normally sedate people into wild celebrations.

The Chilean team and their fans could be forgiven for wanting to stop the hands of time right there, so they could be champions for eternity. But football never stops.

True, as reigning champions Chile will represent South America next year in the Confederations Cup. But as fate would have it, the Copa trophy is up for grabs once again just twelve months after Chile finally got their hands on it.    

A special centenary version of the tournament is taking place in the United States.

Will this competition already show that the current Chile generation, surely the country’s best ever, are now on the way down? It is a possibility.

The Chile squad is ageing – they have the oldest squad of the 16 teams competing in the US – with most of them having played in two World Cups as well as last year’s triumph. The fear that the group is past its best may well be one of the reasons for the controversial decision of coach Jorge Sampaoli to resign at the start of the year.

New man Juan Antonio Pizzi has a hard act to live up to. Had Sampaoli stayed on, then perhaps Chile would have sent an experimental squad to the USA. But with Pizzi wanting to have time with his players, the big names are all on the plane.

This is a risky strategy. Alexis Sanchez and company have already played the 2014 World Cup and last year’s Copa. Add this tournament and the Confederations Cup and they will go to Russia 2018, assuming they qualify, without a full summer break in years. This will surely end up taking its toll on a group of players who are all hitting the 30 mark.

But maybe another reason for taking the full strength squad is the hope that Chile can cling on a little while longer to that champion feeling. Why lose with the kids when there is a chance of winning while the likes of Sanchez and Arturo Vidal are still in their prime?

Chile have lost both their warm up friendlies – remarkably at home to Jamaica and then undeservedly against Mexico. It would, of course, be a mistake to attach too much importance to results in such matches, and against the Mexicans there was plenty of evidence that Chile will still throw players forward in exhilarating style.

So Chile seek to prolong the moment of triumph. The winners are unable to relax because football never stops – and the flip side of that is that the losers always have a chance of gaining revenge.

A year ago, after a 0-0 draw in the final, Chile won the Copa title by beating Argentina on a penalty shoot out.  For the Argentines this was heartbreak; without a senior title since 1993, they had come close to winning the 2014 World Cup and now came closer still. 

Argentina’s brilliant generation of attacking stars are running out of time to lift a trophy. They gained some revenge on Chile in World Cup qualification just over two months ago, winning 2-1 in Santiago on the night that Lionel Messi returned to the team after missing the previous rounds through injury.

Now, as fate would have it, the two teams meet again on Tuesday midday (AEST) in the opening game of their Copa campaign. Messi may well be absent this time – not only was he injured playing a warm up friendly against Honduras, he has also had to fly back to Spain for a court case facing charges of financial irregularities. 

It is not clear, then, what kind of physical and mental state he will be in to face Chile on 6 June, and Argentina have been training with Nico Gaitan taking his place.

Will this mean that Chile will be able to preserve that champion feeling for a little while longer? After waiting 99 years for a trophy, can they now go on to win two in two years? Or has the time come for them to experience the downward part of football’s emotional roller-coaster?

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6 min read
Published 3 June 2016 at 3:09pm
By Tim Vickery
Source: SBS