Lionel Messi playing for Argentina during a 2018 World Cup Qualifer
Reuters Action Images

Will Chile change up their game vs. Argentina if Lionel Messi is absent?

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Silicon Valley has been the hotbed for illustrious pioneers in groundbreaking technology. But this weekend, the attention has shifted towards two of the most notorious national teams in soccer, and specifically, one of the most recognizable innovators in the sport: Lionel Messi.
 
The four-time Ballon d'Or winner arrived in Northern California early on Friday morning from Barcelona, after appearing in court throughout the week to testify for allegedly committing tax fraud. But despite showing up in the US, the Argentine is still questionable for Monday’s Copa América Centenario game against Chile at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (10 pm ET, FS1, UniMás, UDN).
 
Messi’s absence might facilitate Chile’s chances to overcome arguably their toughest opponent in their first round of the tournament--Group D, which is completed by Panama and Bolivia. But Messi’s teammate in FC Barcelona, Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, expects his team to not be distracted by the playmaker’s situation.
 
“We've been playing the same way for awhile now, independently from what the opponent does or the players we have in front of us. If Leo plays or not, the way we play is not going to change,” Bravo said at a press conference on Saturday afternoon at the team’s hotel in Palo Alto.
 
Bravo has been playing alongside Messi in Barcelona for the past two seasons, when he joined the blaugrana from Real Sociedad ahead of the 2014-15 La Liga season. The 33-year-old goalkeeper, the captain of the Chile national team, understands the importance of Messi for Argentina, and how much danger he could bring to his backline. But he also wishes for the No. 10 to play in the match.
 
“Me, personally, I hope he does play because it will make the match more interesting and it will be a very even game, just like last year's Copa America final, and the qualifying match we had [in March],” said Bravo. “I'm not sure about Leo's status, how much he’s hurt and whether that prevents him for playing. With or without him, our identity won't change.”
 
Argentina has now lost two consecutive international tournament finals with Messi leading their efforts, the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America. They've also failed to win a single senior national team title since the 1993 Copa America. Argentina’s trophy-less drought has haunted Messi, who’s won every single competition he’s played with Barcelona, and Argentina fans are desperate for a championship.
 
Gerardo Martino, Argentina’s manager, told Chilean newspaper El Mercurio on Saturday that he’s not going to rush into any conclusions, and Messi’s availability for the game will be a “last-minute” decision. If Messi ends up playing against Chile, Bravo has given his teammates a few tips as to how to prevent him from creating any chances.
 
“We play aggressively, but that doesn’t mean we’re here to hit and knock our opponents. That’s not what we do,” said Bravo. “My advice is to run and asphyxiate our rivals with the ball. The key to this game would be to avoid Leo receiving the ball without any mark, and be concentrated and fearless so he can’t control the ball in open spaces.”
 
Chile is expecting Argentina to play the same with or without Messi, and to complicate things for them, which is why they’re not speculating about a score that would guarantee them a safe result.
 
“We're not thinking about playing for a draw or anything similar, because that would be suicidal against a team like Argentina that have so many great individual qualities,” Bravo said. “Their players can change a game at any given minute, and our goal in this Copa is to win every game, not because we need a specific score. For us it's all about winning whoever we're facing and play an attractive style of soccer.”          
 
Monday’s game will be a rematch of last year’s Copa America final, when Chile lifted the competition’s trophy for the first time in their 37 appearances. After a scoreless draw, they beat Argentina in the final on penalty shootouts, in which Bravo saved one of the shots.
 
But for Bravo, coming into the tournament as defending champions does not mean Chile are immediately favorites for the Copa America Centenario title.
 
“We don't worry about what national teams are favorites or who plays better than the other,” he said. “I think we need to compete with a lot of humility and respect towards the other national teams. We're not thinking about anything beyond this first game against Argentina, and after that obstacle, we'll start looking forward.”
 
Monday’s game will be the 26th meeting between both sides in Copa America competition, with a more than favorable margin for Argentina, with 18 wins and seven draws. Chile has never beat Argentina during a match in the history of the tournament; their 2015 title game against Argentina in the final counts officially as a draw, since Chile won in penalty shootouts.