Argentina is in the Copa América final, but it ain't played nobody

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Lionel Messi and Argentina have been to the top of the world, and along the way, they have conquered behemoths. They have staked their claim to the title of "best national team ever" by dethroning Brazil and ripping apart the reigning European champions, Italy. They won an unforgettable Mundial, beating the Netherlands, Croatia and France in quick succession. They came to the 2024 Copa América to defend their crown, perhaps expecting battles like the one they endured in 2021, where the real journey began, in the Copa semifinals, against Colombia.

Instead, this time around, they got Canada.

They got a team whose coach, Jesse Marsch, looked at assistants after two days of training and said: "We could be in for a tough month."

They got a team they'd already discarded with relative ease in a glitzy Copa América opener. On that night, June 20 in Atlanta, they won 2-0 and, well, many assumed the Canadians were a mere appetizer; that the tournament would get tougher from there.

But it never really did.

Argentina’s obstacles en route to the final were Canada, then over-the-hill Chile, then floundering Peru, then Ecuador, then Canada again.

Their FIFA rankings ranged from 30 to 48.

Only one, Ecuador, is in the Elo top 30.

In 11 collective games, the non-Ecuador opponents combined to score two goals at this Copa América.

Two.

Marsch, upon taking charge this spring, thought that his team — a squad with stars but still in early-stage construction — might go 0-5 in June.

They ultimately overachieved, but on talent and pedigree, they didn’t belong here, at MetLife Stadium on Tuesday, in the Copa’s final four. “I couldn't have imagined that I'd be right here, right now,” Marsch said.

That they were was a credit to their mettle, and their drive, and perhaps some good luck. But it also spoke back to the blatant truth of this Argentine run: at the 2024 Copa América, as American college football fans might say, they ain't played nobody.

They are, until proven otherwise, still the best national team in the world. Nobody doubts that. Nobody would dare doubt that. They are one win away from becoming the first South American team to complete a Copa-World Cup-Copa treble. They have lost only twice in five years.

But — and this is the part you have to whisper — they haven’t looked all that great in the U.S. this summer. They easily could’ve lost to Ecuador last week. And they easily could’ve been dragged into a dogfight Tuesday.

For 20-ish minutes, they were relatively dormant against Canada. They struggled to break down a mid-block 4-4-2. “It wasn't as easy to slice through our team as it was the first game,” Marsch said. “I thought that we were more stable defensively.”

The Argentines were also a bit sloppy — and, by extension, vulnerable. They let Jacob Shaffelburg run wild. They exposed themselves in ways that a better opponent would exploit, and Canada juuuust couldn't quite punish them.

“I think we just lacked efficiency in the final third,” Marsch said.

“That's the difference between the best team in the world ... and us right now,” defender Alistair Johnston said postgame.

But when I asked him about those first 20 minutes, and whether he and his Canadian teammates felt like they were right there with Argentina, “for sure,” Johnston said.

Julián Álvarez’s goal after 22 minutes, a product of sharp attacking and loose Canadian defending, changed everything about Tuesday’s game. It led to Canada players “freestyling, instead of sticking to the plan,” Marsch said. It forced Canada to open up, and expand the space between its midfield and defensive lines.

Messi snuck in and out of that space, and lit up for perhaps the first time all tournament. But is he still great enough to dazzle against a South American giant?

And is Argentina sturdy enough?

And if Messi’s legs are stalling, is the attack potent enough? Is the midfield still settled? Is the magic still alive?

Two hours after Tuesday’s game, as Argentine players marched through a post-match interview zone, and as midnight passed, nobody was asking those questions. The prevailing mood was one of appreciation and awe. “Grateful” was defender Cristian Romero’s word. Grateful to be part of such a special generation of players. Grateful for the rabid and adoring support of fans, which nearly brought Messi to tears. Grateful for six major finals in 11 years — and determined not to take any of it for granted.

"I dreamed of playing just one game in the national team,” goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said. “If you told me I was going to be in my fourth final, I wouldn’t believe it."

They were grateful for Messi, and for Angel Di Maria, who will play his final game for the national team Sunday. As those two gave late-night interviews, Martínez walked behind them with a mischievous grin, and gave each a kiss on the back of the neck.

They all walked and talked with a lightness that only champions can display. They have earned the right to be unperturbed by the past or future, by strength of schedule or by dangerous predators lying in wait.

"I am aware that these are the last battles,” Messi said, “and I am enjoying them to the fullest.”

But the facts remain the facts. The schedule has been soft. The final obstacle — either Colombia or Uruguay in Sunday’s final — will be by far the largest and stiffest. And Argentina will, at last, have to prove itself once more.

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