Argentina will attempt to end their 23-year title drought when they face Chile in the Copa America Centenario final here on Sunday.
Last year’s Copa America final, hosts Chile defeated their neighbors on penalties to clinch their first ever major trophy.
This time round, Chile will face an Argentina outfit that have already beaten them in this tournament – a 2-1 victory in their opening match – and that have barely needed to move out of second gear with five wins from as many matches.
There has been a reassuring and cohesive look to Argentina’s team that was not apparent last year. Moreover, they boast a commodity rarely seen in sport: a once-in-a-lifetime talent who is at the peak of his powers and on a single-minded mission to succeed.
It is doubtful anybody has suffered more from Argentina’s dearth of titles than Lionel Messi.
Critics have claimed that despite his five Ballon d’Or awards and myriad of titles with Barcelona, Messi cannot be considered a true great without leading Argentina to a major trophy.
He has come desperately close. In addition to last year’s agonizing Copa America final defeat, Messi was part of the Argentina team that lost to Germany in extra time in the 2014 World Cup final. He also played in the 2007 Copa America decider, which Argentina lost to Brazil 3-0.
It is tempting to wonder how much those results have weighed on Messi’s mind in this tournament.
A back injury suffered last month meant Messi did not make his first Copa America Centenario start until Argentina’s quarterfinal fixture against Venezuela.
But that hasn’t stopped him from being the tournament’s most influential player with five goals and four assists.
Among the highlights has been a fizzing 25-yard goal from a free-kick against the United States in the semifinals that saw him overtake Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina scoring record.
While the focus of the final will inevitably be on Messi, it is unfair to say he is the be-all and end-all of this Argentina side.
The Albiceleste also boast Gonzalo Higuain, the top scorer in Italy’s Serie A last season, prolific Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero and winger Angel Di Maria.
The latter is in doubt for Sunday’s duel at MetLife stadium with a muscle injury, as is midfielder Augusto Fernandez.
Meanwhile Hebei China Fortune forward Ezequiel Lavezzi has been ruled out of the final after fracturing his elbow against the USA.
After a slow start to the tournament, Chile have found their stride.
Many doubted how they would fare here under the management of Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi, who took over from his compatriot Jorge Sampaoli in January.
Fitful displays in his first matches in charge did little to raise the hopes of Chile fans pining for two Copa America triumphs in as many years.
But the La Roja have looked a different side since their their opening loss to Argentina.
They proved their title credentials by trouncing Mexico 7-0 in their quarterfinal and then outclassing Colombia 2-0 to earn a berth in the final.
Pizzi’s team will be bolstered by the return of Bayern Munich playmaker Arturo Vidal, who missed the semifinal due to suspension.
But midfielders Pablo Hernandez and Marcelo Diaz are doubtful with knee and upper leg injuries respectively.