Argentina’s best performance at this year’s Copa América wasn’t quite enough to see off hosts Brazil as two moments of genuine quality undid an Albiceleste side left frustrated by refereeing decisions.
Goals midway through either half by Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino handed Brazil victory in what was a typically fiery clasico but the scoreline didn’t quite paint the full picture where on another day Argentina could have scored the upset.
The far more balanced Brazilian side started the better and as Argentina struggled to get a grip on the game it was no real surprise when the superb Dani Alves worked the ball wide for Firmino and the Liverpool forward’s low cross was swept in by Jesus after 19 minutes.
Argentina looked on the brink of possible collapse and in the Estadio Mineirão where Brazil’s last semi final ended in a 7-1 defeat the only team that looked likely to be blown away was the one in blue and white.
However, Argentina’s response was good and as Brazil dropped deeper, Lionel Scaloni’s side grew in confidence. Lionel Messi, having his best game of the tournament, was pulling the strings in behind Sergio Agüero and Lautaro Martínez and it was the captain’s free-kick that was headed agonisingly against the underside of the crossbar by Agüero.
Argentina remained in the ascendency and early in the second half it was Messi’s turn to strike the woodwork, volleying against Alisson’s near post and La Albiceleste could consider themselves slightly unfortunate to still be behind before any of the controversy to come.
Alisson saved well from a Messi free-kick and Rodrigo De Paul blazed over a finish following a passage of play that deserved better before the game’s major talking point.
Brazil countered at pace badly exposing Argentina’s limitations in this regard defensively and Jesus repaid Firmino with a tap-in to double the lead but La Albiceleste were left furious at Sergio Agüero appearing to be tripped by Dani Alves in the attack immediately before that Brazilian breakaway.
Without as much as a review from VAR, Argentina’s hopes were now hanging by a thread and the frustration only grew when referee Roddy Zambrano ignored later claims for a second penalty when Nicolás Otamendi was barged over by Arthur at a corner.
With those calls going against Argentina, Brazil secured their place in Sunday’s final but the usually mild-mannered Messi made his feelings clear.
“They were not better than us. They found the net early and the second goal came from a penalty they didn’t award,” Messi fumed.
“The officiating was crazy. There were clear penalties, on Nicolás Otamendi, on Sergio Agüero.
“He [the referee] was on their side. In every divided ball or dispute, he inclined the pitch their way. It’s not an excuse, but the truth is that, in this Copa, they kept on blowing for stupid things, for handballs, penalties. But today, they didn’t even go to VAR when there were clear plays that should have been looked at.”
The lack of even a review was certainly odd and an understandable source of frustration for Argentina but shouldn’t completely overshadow the fact that Lionel Scaloni’s side never looked like Copa América winners.
Saving what was their best for the semi final provides a glimmer of hope as the rebuild has already begun and the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Leandro Paredes and Juan Foyth can hopefully now consolidate their places in the team.
With another Copa on home soil next year, Lionel Messi is this time intent on sticking around and was positive in his appraisal in defeat.
“It was our best match in the Copa, against a Brazil that has spectacular players all over the pitch. These guys made a huge sacrifice. They deserve respect. Argentina has the material to keep growing.”
“Something new is on the horizon. I hope we are respected and not criticised. They should let the team be and let them grow.
“The truth is I have got on very well with this group of players and if I have to help in some way I will. This is a great group which is growing and if I can join them I will.”
Whether that it under Lionel Scaloni remains to be seen but the coach looks set to stay on until the end of the year as the AFA reassess. Have Argentina turned the corner or are they sleepwalking toward further failure, only time will tell.