By MAURICIO SAVARESE AP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO – A contest between Neymar and Lionel Messi is how many fans perceive the Copa America final between Brazil and Argentina.
The players themselves, however, see that the biggest challenge on Saturday at Maracana Stadium will be between one of the toughest defensive lines to break in world football and the protection around one of the best players in history. .
With a pinch of pepper off the field to spice up the rivalry.
Neymar’s Brazilian side have conceded just two goals in six Copa America appearances. Veterans Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Ãder MilitÃ£o take over as holders without putting the Selecao under too much risk, if any. Defensive midfielders Casemiro and Fred are relentless. Right-back Danilo and left-back Renan Lodi are more inclined to defend than to run in front.
These players initially criticized the South American football confederation for moving the continental tournament to Brazil in emergency mode. Ahead of Messi’s final against Argentina, they changed their narrative to win at all costs. And by keeping a blank sheet.
“The area where Messi plays is where I play, we face each other a lot during games,” Casemiro said at a press conference on Thursday. âI can’t score any player on my own, you need teammates. And you don’t just score one player.
“It starts with Neymar, Richarlison and it ends with the goalkeeper – a team plays with 11, defends with 11 and attacks with 11”.
Meanwhile, Argentina have found a formula to try and protect Messi, who now at 34 is playing much closer to the bottom third of the pitch. Midfielders Rodrigo de Paul and Giovani Lo Celso, especially creative players, selflessly add a barrier around Messi. Although they still manage to give good passes to aggressive wingers Lautaro Martinez and Nico Gonzalez.
Messi has scored four goals and distributed five assists in this edition of the Copa America. Ahead of the tournament, he said his dream was to win their first major title with Argentina, who haven’t won a major trophy for 28 years. He plays Barcelona style for his national team, scoring from free kicks, dazzling opponents with frequent runs despite his age and giving plenty of assists.
“Messi is one step ahead of all of us,” De Paul said ahead of the penalty shootout win over Colombia in the semi-final. âWe’re here to grow, to help. We are all on the same path. What matters is winning and representing Argentina well.
The strengths of Brazil and Argentina also hide some of their weaknesses.
Brazil are so confident in their defense that their forwards are underperforming in Copa America. Richarlison and Roberto Firmino only scored one goal each. Gabriel Jesus, suspended from the final, did not find the back of the net.
Argentina’s efforts to protect Messi have also cost the team physically in the second half of most matches – this is precisely when Brazil scores the most goals.
The Copa America final is the only game in the tournament that opens up the possibility of extra time before penalties. Argentina played their semi-final a day after Brazil advanced.
Juicy comments ahead of the final could also affect the mood of the game. Brazilian Richarlison said his side will chat with the Argentines during the game.
âWe can manage, it’s not just about talking. We are going to talk and show it on the pitch, âsaid the forward. “We’re going to provoke them, it’s going to happen.”
It wasn’t much different in their previous clash in the South American tournament in 2019, when Brazil beat Argentina, 2-0, in the semi-finals with goals from Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. Neymar did not play in this tournament due to an injury.
Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez also provoked the Colombian players in the penalty shoot-out that put his team in the final. Martinez made three saves.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro kicked off the final rivalry during an online meeting with his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernandez.
âI’ll say what the outcome will be. It will be 5-0, âsaid Bolsonaro, who is not expected to attend. Fernandez just laughed.