Football Features

Di Maria and De Paul do the dirty work to beat Brazil as Messi lifts Argentina’s first Copa America in 28 years

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 5:17, 11 July 2021 | Updated: 16:25, 14 July 2021

In a brutal night of football, Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 at the Maracana to win the 2021 Copa América.

This was Argentina’s first senior trophy since winning the 1993 edition of the Copa, ending a 28-year drought. It also drew them level with Uruguay on 15 total Copas won (a record). And of course it marked Leo Messi’s first trophy with the senior side after his 16-year international career. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Angel Di Maria

In the 2008 Olympic Games, Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0 in the gold medal match and the man who scored that goal was Angel Di Maria (ably assisted by Leo Messi). After that, Di Maria’s record in finals was awful. Not that he played badly, he just never got to play (or play properly). Injured before the 2014 World Cup final, injured during the 2015 Copa America final and unfit in the 2016 Copa America final. Without Di Maria’s clutch play everything fell on Messi and opponents found it too easy to stifle Argentina as a result.

Di Maria came into the 2021 Copa America final fully fit having had his minutes managed throughout the tournament and he finally delivered another match-winning performance, mirroring 2008 by scoring the only goal with a delicious chip, albeit this time he ran off the right flank rather than the left. The end result was the same, however: with a fully fit Angel Di Maria: Argentina won a final.

Loser: Renan Lodi

Most goals, even great ones, require someone to make a mistake somewhere. That mistake can sometimes be minor, or it can be major. In this case it was major, and as delightful as the Argentine contributions to the tournament-winning goal were; they came either side of a massive mistake from Renan Lodi.

Tite has been rotating a lot of his squad in this Copa, including left-back but Lodi appeared to have nailed down the position for his forward forays. However his weakness at the back was constantly exposed as Argentina aimed countless diagonals his way in the first-half, and on 21 minutes that bore fruit as he span and tried to cut out a De Paul pass only to miss it entirely and let Di Maria in to score. He was so miserable at the back that Tite eventually withdrew him for Emerson, a right-back playing out of position.

Winner: Rodrigo De Paul

While Di Maria scooped the official man of the match award for the final, likely because he scored the winning goal, the best player on the park was the man who passed it to him: Rodrigo De Paul. The Argentine midfielder was coming off a huge season with Udinese in Serie A and carried that form into the Copa with an excellent tournament full of creative but battling displays.

He brought all that energy to bear in the final and Brazil couldn’t live with him. His pressing destabilised them, his dribbling taunted them, and his passing cut them open. Most specifically on two occasions, the first was his raking 50 yard pass to Angel Di Maria that set-up the opener and his second was a deliciously deft diagonal pass in behind the defence that Leo Messi really should have scored from.

De Paul’s genius highlighted the one thing Argentina have been missing ever since Juan Roman Riquelme fell off: a genuinely creative presence in midfield. It makes such a difference, De Paul makes such a difference. The whirling dynamo at the heart of Argentina’s win.

Loser: Tite

Tite came into this game having never lost a Copa America match as manager and he would have expected, playing in the Maracana as they were, that streak to continue. Instead it exploded in his face and he endured a Maracanazo all of his own.

On the one hand it’s hard to be too critical of Tite given that Brazil did play well and it took a wondergoal to actually beat them. But the limitations of the Brazil side did come from Tite’s pragmatic approach; rather than take risks with the likes of Eder Militao he opted for safer picks like Thiago Silva and routinely started a double pivot of Casemiro and Fred and his attacking strategy amounted to “give it to Neymar and pray” which obviously is not something you can always rely on in big games.

One hopes he will learn from this.

Winner: Emiliano Martinez

Just over 12 months ago Emi Martinez was a back-up goalkeeper with Arsenal whose career was going nowhere. Then he gets a shot in the first-team and helps them win the FA Cup, then the Community Shield, then he’s sold to Aston Villa and impresses so much that he gets called up to the Argentina squad. He makes his debut in the World Cup qualifiers in June 2021 and then by the start of July, he’s won the country’s first Copa America since he was one years old.

He was immense in the final too, dominating his area and making big saves when he had to. And of course who can forget his epic display in the semi-final where he dominating the penalty shoot-out against Colombia to seal Argentina’s place in the final. He won the golden gloves at the tournament

From nowhere to relentless trophy glory in the space of 15 months. It’s been a wild ride for Emiliano Martinez!

Loser: Neymar

Brazil won the Copa America in 2007, before Neymar came onto the international scene. They lost in 2011, 2015 and 2016 however. The wild creative prowess of Neymar was not enough to inspire Brazil to even reach the final at any of these tournaments.

Then with Neymar injured, Brazil won the 2019 Copa America. A raucous celebration for the nation but Neymar receives nothing, and now has to watch people wonder if Brazil are better without him.

This Copa America should make plain that Brazil are definitely better with Neymar in the side as he was a one-man-band at times. Asked to pick the ball up on halfway and drive past multiple waves of opponent’s press to create chances; what’s truly absurd is that he was actually able to do that pretty much all tournament long. Even against Argentina he managed to conjure some moments of magic, but nowhere near enough because the Argentine defence was so well organised.

Winner: Leo Messi

He did it.

He finally did it.

Leo Messi has won a major final for Argentina. First there was the U-20 World Cup in 2005, and then the Olympic Games in 2008, both triumphs but not with the senior teams. No, with the main side Messi’s international career is a tragic joke thanks to an ill advised team selections, sloppy subs and a litany of letdowns by his team-mates not least Gonzalo Higuain’s three misses in three straight finals.

The desperation of Messi had become a running theme, with the great one determined to win a trophy for Argentina but seemingly incapable of doing so in a final without help from his team-mates, which was never forthcoming. Many in the squad were open in their desire to “win it for Messi” but of course given how most tournaments had ended in disaster as Messi’s team-mates failed him, no one expected much.

True enough this Copa America appeared to be running down the usual pattern with Messi emerging as the tournament’s best player by some distance. He was already crowned best player before kick-off and was likely to finish top scorer too. He had been sensational and was the major force in terms of dragging Argentina to the final as he was in 2015 and 2016.

In the final itself, Brazil concentrated most of their defensive efforts into stopping Messi. A smart gambit as so often his team-mates have failed to step up, and you expected the pattern to continue. And it worked as Messi was poor, to the point where he missed an absolute sitter to kill the game off late-on. But of course this year Messi’s team-mates broke the cycle and for once, Argentina carried Messi. De Paul’s assist, Di Maria’s goal, Martinez’s saves and all the desperate last-ditch defending.

It was enough, in the end, to win the match and thus the tournament. And the scenes at full time were illustrative at just how central Leo Messi was to this Argentina squad, with the final whistle seeing the whole team run towards their captain. The sheer joy as they all piled on top of him before tossing him, not manager Leonel Scaloni, into the air in celebration.

They had “won it for Messi” – and the greatest player on earth was finally given the helping hand he so sorely wanted, needed and deserved. As a result, Argentina delivered their first Copa America in 28 years, their first trophy in 28 years, and they did so by beating Brazil in Brazil – the first time any nation has stopped the Selecao winning a “home” Copa – and gaining a measure of revenge for their failure in this very stadium back in the 2014 World Cup final. Argentina had won by the team banding together and in a final they had been dragged to by Leo Messi, stepping up and saving their captain as he had so often saved them over the course of 16 long years.

Leo Messi has now won more Copa America titles than Pele, Maradona and Di Stefano put together.

Leo Messi has now won with Argentina.

And you’ll never take that away from him.