by Mosope Ominiyi
On Saturday evening, it was either going to be delight or downfall for Chile.
The hosts of this year’s Copa América tournament, they came into the competition with nothing to lose. Argentina, who were heavily-tipped to go all the way this summer, were their opponents in the final, and La Roja were always going to be the underdogs.
Alexis Sánchez, who has amassed over 70 matches in the past twelve months for both club and country, started again as Jorge Sampaoli’s men looked to make history: winning the national side’s first ever Copa América triumph.
It was not going to be easy, against Tata Martino’s side. Obviously fired up from their cruel World Cup final defeat just twelve months ago against Germany, Lionel Messi and co were eager for good fortune ahead of the 2015/16 campaign.
It promised to be a fierce encounter.
South American fixtures always have the possibility of kicking off, but in fairness, the referee did well to keep proceedings fairly civil. Fouls galore, tackles flying in, rash and harsh challenges were being totalled up as the clock continued to tick.
Chance after chance, it was still goalless. Sánchez, who is expected to miss the Gunners’ first few fixtures as Arséne Wenger plans to give him extra rest, was exciting to watch as always. His tireless work down the right-hand side remained a thorn in side of the Argentine backline as they struggled to contain his constant threat with neither side being able to open the scoring.
His tricky footwork, electric turn of pace, close-control dribbling and unselfish play was there for all to see as the opposing defenders struggled to get near him at times.
Valencia defender Nicolas Otamendi – who has been heavily linked with a move to Manchester United – was constantly bamboozled by the 26-year-old’s footwork as Sánchez looked for team-mates in space to feed inside the area. Vargas and Aránguiz were both involved at times, neither of which could thoroughly test Sergio Romero in-between the sticks for the Argentinians.
Alexis himself came close with an effort of his own, having given City right-back Pablo Zabaleta the runaround inside the box. He used a neat body feint before shaping to strike, but his eventual strike on-goal was comfortably smothered by Romero, who was equal to the Arsenal man’s attempt. After Argentina should have been ahead at the interval, Chile knew they needed to step up. Step up, they did.
Straight after the fifteen minute break, Sánchez was almost instantaneously on the ball. His dangerous delivery into the box from the flank fell into the path of Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal, who chested the ball down, but his eventual volley strike goalwards was deflected to safety. Although he was not often on the ball, when he was involved, Sánchez always carried some form of threat which the opposing defenders knew needed to be quelled, and quickly. Whether that be running off-the-ball, driving at markers with the ball, maintaining a high pressing game, doing defensive work, he was everywhere.
As cynical and ugly as it was, Martino’s men did well to shut out the Chile attacks on-goal for the majority of the match. However, Sánchez was simply a pest they could not contain constantly. He came close to breaking the deadlock with a stinging drive which flashed narrowly over the crossbar after sprinting past his defensive marker.
Then, shortly afterwards, he almost netted what would have been one of his best goals to date. After a neat lofted ball was fed through towards his path by Charles Aránguiz, he took an ambitious but well-struck shot goalwards within an instant. Superb technique, the effort was sweet and Romero was helpless to stop the effort at his far post. However, Sánchez watched on in agony as the strike swerved an inch past the post.
Into extra time the game went, and still, no goals. Gonzalo Higuaín should have buried his golden chance on the stroke of the full-time whistle, and somehow, it was still nil-nil. A few alterations and more fouls continued, breaking up the play whenever possible for a chance to develop. The possibility of penalties was becoming a reality, and the destination of this year’s trophy would be decided in the most heart-breaking way. Penalties next.
Matias Fernandez, Lionel Messi and Arturo Vidal all stepped up – all netted their respective penalties. Fernandez’s strike was a thumping one, Messi with a cooly slotted effort and Vidal breathed a sigh of relief as Romero was unlucky stretching with his fingertips to save the shot.
Then, we had Gonzalo Higuaín. Having missed a clear-cut opportunity to settle the tie in stoppage time before extra time, he stepped up for his spot-kick. Luck was clearly not on his side, he struck high and wide over the crossbar with Bravo celebrating as though he already knew the result was secured.
Aránguiz was next up, and his attempt was nicely placed into the corner of the net. Nothing that Romero could do though, in fairness. However, Lionel must have been looking on in disbelief as Ever Banega had his poor strike thwarted by Bravo. The Barca ‘keeper dived to his left and parried the ball to safety.
To seal a famous victory for the Chileans, up stepped Alexis Sánchez. The club’s fan favourite was next, and he made no mistake either. An audacious penalty dink, wrongfooting Romero in the process, with a cutely-struck Panenka into the bottom corner of the net, sending the whole stadium into sheer delight. La Roja supporters will be partying into the night, and for many more I’m sure.
As for Argentina, it’ll be nothing but bitter disappointment on an evening where they had plenty of opportunities to put the game to bed, but for the second time in twelve months, they came up short with another second placed finish in a major international competition.
Sánchez was not at his 10/10 best, admittedly. Despite this though, the 26-year-old forward was an integral part of Chile’s road to success, regardless of how his critics may feel. Arsenal fans will be hoping that with a well-earned rest and two trophies in the space of three months, he’ll be firing on all cylinders next term.
Congratulations to Chile, and Alexis Sánchez!