Argentina’s latest attempt to end their 23-year wait for a senior title begins again on Monday evening when Gerardo Martino’s side face Chile in the opening group game of the Copa América Centenario in Santa Clara.
La Albiceleste’s preparation has been less than ideal with injuries to Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Biglia but without question the most significant worry was the sight of captain Lionel Messi limping off in the warm up victory over Honduras.
The Barcelona star was back in Spain this week for his court hearing on the charges of tax evasion but is still in some discomfort from the back injury that prompted his substitution over a week ago in San Juan.
Now while, the injured trio mentioned previously might, perhaps should, have been replaced in Argentina’s squad, there is no question that you take even a half fit Lionel Messi for his impact later in the tournament.
The five-time Ballon D’or winner is said to be desperate to win the Copa América but Argentina must be careful not to rush the 28-year-old back.
However, Gerardo Martino admitted that any decision not to include Messi for the game against Chile will be made at the last moment and will be decided by the player and how he feels, “when it comes to Messi, we’re going to wait for the training in the afternoon.”
It is thought that Messi will only be fit for a place on Argentina’s bench on Monday evening and so Martino will name Nicolás Gaitán in his starting eleven.
The Benfica playmaker cannot fill the shoes of a player such as Messi but Martino is confident that the former Boca star can add to the side.
“I don’t expect him to do anything like Leo,” Martino explained.
“I want him to be himself more than ever because he has a very good condition, and he can do it. He is fast, he passes the ball very well, he dribbles very well. He’s a very complete player.”
Argentina beat an understrength Chile side in Santiago in March when the sides met in World Cup qualifying but La Roja certainly boast the stronger recent bragging rights after condemning La Albiceleste to another runners up spot at a major competition.
It is impossible to avoid last summer’s historic Copa América triumph for Chile in the build up to this game but Martino played down any talk of revenge.
“We were asked if it was a rematch when we played in the qualifiers. The final of the Copa America was a year ago and Chile won on penalties. Not even a final would give us an opportunity for revenge. It would just give us a new opportunity.”
Victory on Monday wouldn’t undo the pain of that defeat for Argentina but it would be the strong start that the nation expects as the go in search for a long overdue title.
The probable starting XI against Chile this evening: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Nicolás Otamendi, Ramiro Funes Mori, Marcos Rojo; Augusto Fernández, Javier Mascherano, Éver Banega; Nicolás Gaitán, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel Di María.