By Samindra Kunti in Belo Horizonte
July 3 – Lionel Messi’s wait for a major international team title goes on. On Tuesday night his Argentina were eliminated from the Copa America by hosts Brazil in a classic South American encounter that was high on emotions, but low in quality.
Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino scored for Brazil ensuring their passage to the final against Chile or Peru and prolonging Argentina’s 26-year drought.
The semi-final in the Minas capital always had the character of transcending what has been a low-key Copa America, because of the history and rivalry between Brazil and Argentina and a white-hot match didn’t disappoint. Emotions were always in danger of spilling over in match that was punctuated by flying tackles, strong challenges and tight marking, but Brazil got into the driving seat when left back Daniel Alves released Firmino, who squared low for Gabriel Jesus to tap in in the 19th minute.
It was Jesus’ first tournament goal from open play. The striker drew a blank at last year’s World Cup in Russia and was heavily criticised for his underwhelming performance. At the Copa America Jesus failed to get on the scoresheet in the first four matches, but the opening goal against Argentina set his team on the path to victory.
Following Jesus’ strike Brazil however lost their fluency and preferred to sit deep. That strategy and perhaps also an impotence to dominate the game on their terms almost backfired as Argentina grew into the game. Sergio Aguero’s header from a Messi delivery rattled the woodwork and after the interval Messi also saw a shot ricochet off the post. In a frantic second half the momentum was swinging Argentina’s way, but Brazil lurked on the counter and the brilliantly energetic Jesus zipped past Nicolas Otamendi to tee up Firmino for what proved to be the decisive goal and knockout blow for Argentina.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni enforced several changes, including sending on Paulo Dybala and Angel Di Maria, but there was no way back into the game for his team. In 2015 and 2016 Argentina had reached the final of the Copa America before failing twice from the penalty spot against Chile. Next year Argentina will co-host the tournament with Colombia, providing Messi with another shot at silverware, but the Albiceleste will need to drastically improve and mould a team out of a dysfunctional group of individuals to be successful on home soil.
Brazil march on to the Maracana and await the outcome of Wednesday’s semi-final between Chile and Peru. Tite’s team got a hard-fought victory and the result they wanted against Argentina, but Brazil’s performance also left a lot to be desired. The tinkering for Tite will go on.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1601328007labto1601328007ofdlr1601328007owedi1601328007sni@o1601328007fni1601328007