SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Chileans will never forget last year’s 4th of July.
After 120 minutes in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, they became the 2015 Copa América champions after winning a penalty shootout against Argentina, who were looking to tie Uruguay’s record of 15 titles. Despite being one of the four original countries that participated in the first Copa América in 1916, it was Chile’s first championship in a then 99-year history of the competition.
La Roja will start the defense of their title on Monday night when they again face Argentina, this time at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (10pm ET, FS1, UniMás, UDN). Although they will have only held the title for less than one year, rather than all the way until the 2019 edition in Brazil, Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal said he has no complaints about this year's winners being honored on the traditional, 100-year-old Copa América trophy.
"It's fair [for a new champion to be crowned], because this is another Copa América,” said Vidal during Sunday's pre-match press conference. “There are more teams in it, which makes the competition harder, but we're the champions, and we have to try to defend it."
While keeping his head on his shoulders, the Bayern Munich standout is confident about Chile’s chances to repeat.
“I think we're one of the three top candidates to win this tournament,” expressed a self-assured Vidal. “We won it last year, we've always shown a great style of soccer and we are fifth in the [FIFA] rankings and fourth in the World Cup qualifiers. I think we're definitely one of the favorites, and it's a very nice competition to show all the potential we have.”
Vidal even ventured to name Chile's Monday opponents as among the top candidates to lift the trophy and snatch it away from them.
“I believe Argentina is the top candidate [to win Copa América Centenario], because they've played two finals, in the 2014 World Cup and Copa América last year,” acknowledged Vidal. “Following them, there's Brazil, and below us, I think it's Mexico, who play very good soccer and very similar to us. Those are definitely the stronger national teams in this tournament.”
Argentina come up as the first obstacle for La Roja in their quest to revalidate their championship. In Chile’s favor, La Albiceleste might not have star Lionel Messi in the lineup due to a back injury, but Chile head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said that does not change the perspective of a tense match.
“Because of the amount of quality players [Argentina] has – with some exceptions, all of them have a great level, experience and come into the game with an exceptional current form,” said Pizzi, “I don't think [Messi’s absence] will shift their structure and what you'd hope they bring to the game.”