Angel Di Maria came up with the vital goal, but nobody did more to drive the Albiceleste to glory than their veteran captain
Finally, the day arrived, and in the most thrilling of circumstances.
Lionel Messi finally banished the memories of years of international despair as his Argentina team downed Brazil 1-0 to take the Copa America title in the Selecao’s own backyard.
And having played every single minute of the tournament, driving his bruised body to new limits amid the flying tackles of South America’s fearsome defenders, there is now no doubt that this Copa, from start to finish, belonged to the 34-year-old wizard – who was just seven when, in 1993, the Albiceleste last experienced glory in this competition.
While Messi had been in spectacular form going into the final, so had his friend-turned-nemesis Neymar, who had his own motivation for victory having missed out in the Maracana two years ago as Brazil claimed the Copa title at Peru’s expense.
The Barcelona star, moreover, had yet to test his wits against a team of the calibre of the Selecao, who had breezed through the tournament on home soil to set up this much-anticipated decider.
Anyone tuning in expecting a festival of flowing football between these two titans, though, was soon to be disappointed. Argentina and Brazil went toe-to-toe in a brutal first half, with play barely developing amid a torrent of fouls from both sides.
It took one spectacular move from the visitors, an oasis in this football desert, to break the deadlock. Rodrigo De Paul let loose with a perfectly weighted lofted pass from inside his own half which just eluded Renan Lodi, amongst the Selecao’s weakest links, to release surprise starting inclusion Angel Di Maria.
The Paris Saint-Germain star has featured more from the bench in this Copa, but he was ideally placed to take advantage of the sole clear chance of the first half, chipping over the onrushing Ederson and sending the handful of Argentina fans lucky enough to gain access to the final into ecstasy.
One of the first to congratulate him was Messi, who had few chances to make his mark amid the constant attention of yellow shirts but still posed a constant potential danger every time he touched the ball.
He and the entire Argentina team then breathed a collective sigh of relief minutes later when Di Maria, chasing an almost identical ball, appeared to injure his ankle after treading awkwardly on the Maracana turf. Thankfully for a man who has suffered so many injury woes in international colours, it proved a momentary scare.
Proof, perhaps, that the Albiceleste’s final fortunes were finally turning?
Despite going behind, Brazil coach Tite altered his rigid scheme, freeing up Neymar with the arrival of Roberto Firmino and pushing slightly more forward. The threat from the reigning champions in turn grew: six minutes into the second period Richarlison thought he had levelled with an opportunistic rebound finish, only to see play brought back for offside.
Seconds later, Argentina’s penalty hero Emiliano Martinez came to the rescue, stopping from the Everton forward who had begun to revel in the space behind left-back Marcos Acuna. The Albiceleste defence, erratic at the best of times, creaked and croaked, but just managed to stay in one piece, to the frustration of the expectant hosts.
Messi nevertheless continued to scurry and scamper past defenders, ensuring that Brazil could never take their eye off the back as the minutes ticked by. And for once in a Copa final he did not find himself fighting the good fight, as Di Maria and the magnificent De Paul provided the company he longs for. Indeed, the new Atletico Madrid signing almost notched a second assist when he set Leo clean through on the break, only for the star to see the ball catch under his usually deadly feet and Ederson dive in to clear up. Despite all appearances to the contrary, he is human after all.
The final whistle ultimately came without Messi managing to stamp his unique mark on the final. But he could not care a jot. The joy on the captain’s face was uplifting after so many heart-breaking defeats in international football, and perhaps nobody in the game deserved this more than him.
After almost 20 years and four finals La Pulga is the champion of South America, the emblem of a young, confident Argentina team who make up for their lack of star power with an unshakeable sense of solidarity and unity. But without Messi, their path to Maracana glory would have been far less clear – now, his place alongside Diego Maradona and the rest of his nation’s greats is sealed.
Nigeria Edge Cape Verde in Qatar World Cup Qualifier
The Super Eagles continued their 100 per cent record against Cape Verde in their second match of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers on Tuesday.
The Nigerian team won the game 2-1 after staging a comeback.
A 75th-minute own goal by Cape Verde earned Nigeria a 2-1 win in their qualifying clash in Mindelo on Tuesday, a result that stabilized the Super Eagles’ leadership of the pool as they await a home-and-away fixture against Central African Republic next month.
Dylan dos Santos steered the home team in front after 19 minutes of an intense back-and-forth by both sides, when he slipped behind the Eagles’ rearguard and slammed a rocket of a shot past goalkeeper Maduka Okoye.
The three-time African champions refused to be brow-beaten, and launched series of attacks, with Chidera Ejuke forcing the opposing goalkeeper to an acrobatic save in the 27th minute. Two minutes later, an alert Victor Osimhen would pull Nigeria level, stabbing home from close range after the goalkeeper punched following a defensive blunder.
In the 41st minute, the lively Ejuke again rattled the Cape Verde number one, before Osimhen came close to adding another one from a corner with a minute to recess.
Kelechi Iheanacho and six other UK-based players were absent when the Super Eagles played the Blue Sharks in Mindelo.
The players were forced out from the tie after the UK government insisted individuals who travel to “red zones” — which Cape Verde falls into — must quarantine for 10 days upon return.
Aside from the seven UK-based players, Serie A defender, Ola Aina, also did not travel with the squad to Mindelo, and returned to Italy instead.
In the second half, Ahmed Musa latched onto a centre by Osimhen as the Eagles pushed forward, but his tame shot was easily collected. Substitute Onyekuru was also guilty of putting too low a purchase on his shot in the 73rd minute as Nigeria streamed to the opposition area.
Two minutes later, in a spectacular backpass to his goalkeeper, Kenny Santos scored an own goal as the ball floated above the goaltender and landed in the net. The goal put Nigeria in front and eventually gave the Super Eagles the three points on the night.
Victory took the Eagles to maximum six points from two matches, three points ahead of second –placed Liberia, ahead of the Day 3 and 4 games scheduled for October.
WC Qualifier: Nigeria to face Cape Verde without UK-based Stars
The Super Eagles will tackle the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde this afternoon in Match Day 2 of Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier without the services of UK-based players.
The Super Eagles contingent landed on the island of Mindelo yesterday morning, after a four-hour flight from Lagos aboard a special Air Peace jet.
There were 21 players on board, following the departure of UK-based players, who returned to their base as a result of UK authorities COVID-19 protocols and guidelines that must be observed by anyone returning to Britain after visiting a country with COVID-19 red label, of which Cape Verde is one.
Today’s encounter, scheduled for the 5,000 –capacity Estádio Municipal Adérito Sena, affords a number of ambitious fresh legs not deployed in Friday’s 2-0 win over Liberia in Lagos to stake claims for permanent shirts in the Nigerian squad.
The absence of Olaoluwa Aina, William Ekong, and Leon Balogun probably means that Italy –based Tyronne Ebuehi, Chidozie Awaziem of FC Boavista in Portugal, and Spain–based Kenneth Omeruo will start against the Blue Sharks this evening.
The departures of two-goal hero Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi also open the door for perhaps Terem Moffi and Henry Onyekuru. But it is in the midfield that Coach Gernot Rohr would have to enlist entirely unaccustomed partners and charge them to deliver.
Oghenekaro Etebo, Wilfred Ndidi, and Joseph Ayodele-Aribo have all returned to the UK.
Coach Rohr may opt to deploy the versatile Abdullahi Shehu to the midfield as he has done a couple of times, most recently in Sierra Leone against the Leone Stars in a 2021 AFCON qualifier. Russia–based Chidera Ejuke, Italy–based former junior international Kingsley Michael, and new face Innocent Bonke from Sweden are available.
Captain Ahmed Musa will earn his 100th cap for Nigeria, 11 years after he won his first against Madagascar in Calabar if he takes any part in today’s encounter.
Three points will consolidate Nigeria’s leadership of Group C, confirmed after the victory over Liberia that followed the draw between Cape Verde and the Central African Republic in Douala. A win will guarantee Nigeria a minimum of three points ahead of any other team in the pool, even if Liberia’s Lone Star is victorious against Central African Republic in Monrovia.
A win will also brighten the path of the three–time African champions to the knockout final round, given that home-and-away fixture against the Central African Republic is what is on the plate in October.
Conte breaks silence, says pre-deal with Arsenal not true
Antonio Conte’s agent, Federico Pastorello has revealed that the coach has not agreed to a pre-deal with Arsenal FC.
There have been speculations that Conte is in line to replace Mikel Arteta at the Emirates after the later failed to win a single game this season in the Premier League.
The Gunners have also not recorded any goal in their defeats to Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Although Conte is out of work since leaving Inter Milan, he is not close to returning to the dugout.
Transfer specialist, Fabrizio Romano, tweeted: “There’s absolutely NO pre agreement between Antonio Conte and Arsenal. Conte has no verbal/pre-agreement with any club and he’s free.
“Federico Pastorello – agent close to Conte since years – confirms to @Freddie_Paxton: “Rumours about Arsenal pre-deal are not true”.
There’s absolutely NO pre agreement between Antonio Conte and Arsenal. Conte has no verbal/pre agreement with any club and he’s free.
Federico Pastorello – agent close to Conte since years – confirms to @Freddie_Paxton: “Rumours about Arsenal pre-deal are not true”.
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) September 5, 2021
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