SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Leo who?
Despite missing their star man, Argentina started out their Copa América Centenario campaign on the right foot, defeating Chile, 2-1, in a thrilling re-match of last year’s final.
Even more impressive, they did it without their star man, and quite possibly the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.
But Argentina head coach Gerardo Martino was quick to remind the doubters that it was folly to think that La Albiceleste might be better off without the Barcelona man.
“We’re always the best team when Messi is in the team and our possibilities of winning the Copa are always higher when he is playing with the team,” Martino told reporters after the game. “What we need to do is respond when he’s not there. We did not do it [in World Cup qualifiers] against Ecuador but, for example, we did it against Colombia and against Chile in the qualifiers and tonight.
“We came with 23 soccer players and all of the them have their responsibilities and all of them should not think they have to replace or play like this absent player because when you’re talking about the best player in the world, it’s impossible to imitate him.”
That being said, Argentina are certainly not lacking for talent behind Messi. Martino set out a front three that featured Benfica winger Nicolas Gaitan – playing on the right flank as Messi’s replacement, with Angel Di Maria on the left and Gonzalo Higuain leading the line.
It was Di Maria who would open the scoring, and Ever Banega netted all-important second goal soon after, but Martino was happy with what Gaitan showed in Messi’s absence.
“Nico Gaitan played like he does at at Benfica,” Martino told reporters after the game. “He did not play outside of his possibilities because no player has the abilities to replace Leo.”
Messi’s absence also gave Gaitan and Di Maria the opportunity to switch flanks, a tactical gambit that helped unbalance the Chilean defense, and one that Martino said he gave the two the freedom to execute – but only when Messi, who typically plays on the right, is off the field.
Chile head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi believed that his team had an advantage coming into the game with Messi out, but similarly praised the work Gaitan did in his stead.
“Messi is probably more dangerous than any other player. [His absence was] an advantage we had, I believe that it favored us in this case,” Pizzi told reporters at his postgame press conference. “But the player that replaced Messi, Gaitan, had a good game. He has other virtues, other characteristics. He also helped the opposing team to have a good structure. At the end of the day it made the opposing team a very solid team and they were able to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Messi, who suffered a back injury in Argentina’s final Copa America tune-up against Honduras on May 27, had to return to Spain to face trial on tax evasion charges and only arrived in the United States to re-join Argentina’s team on Friday. Prior to Monday's game, he trained twice with the squad, largely on his own.
But with victory now in the bag and Messi set to get some serious time on the training field after starting his recovery work in Barcelona, fans will want to know: will we see Messi on June 10 when Argentina take on Panama?
“He is kicking the ball better and we expect that in four days he will be in condition to play,” said Martino. “It is worth thinking that he will recover by then.”
Whether Martino will actually risk him ahead of the knockout rounds remains to be seen, but Argentina fans can rest assured: if all goes well, Messi will be back to lead their quest for a long-awaited title.