Santa Clara: Argentina shrugged Lionel Messi's absence due to injury to start their Copa America campaign with a 2-1 win over defending champions Chile on Monday.
Goals from Angel di Maria and Ever Banega secured a deserved three points for Argentina, who exacted sweet revenge for their defeat to Chile in last year's Copa America final. Chile substitute Jose Fuenzalida scored an injury time consolation for the holders.
The Argentines will now be firm favorites to progress to the quarter-finals as Group D winners, with games against Panama and Bolivia to come.
Injured Argentina captain Messi watched from the substitutes' bench at the Levi's Stadium after failing to recover in time from a sore back suffered in a friendly win over Honduras last month. But the Barcelona superstar's absence was barely noticeable, with Nicolas Gaitan slotting into Argentina's attack and making an instant impression, hitting the woodwork with a header after only two minutes.
That missed chance set the tone for the early exchanges of an entertaining first half, which saw Argentina create the lion's share of opportunities without managing to find a breakthrough goal.
Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo was the next to test Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, unleashing a dipping shot from 20 yards which the Barcelona stopper comfortably saved in the 17th minute.
In midfield, meanwhile, a fascinating battle for supremacy was unfolding between Argentina's rugged enforcer Javier Mascherano and Chile's combative Bayern Munich star Arturo Vidal. The latter did not wait long to make his mark on the contest, crashing into the back of Gaitan with an ugly challenge that earned him a yellow card from Uruguayan referee Daniel Fedorczuk.
Chile, fielding the core of their victorious Copa America side, gradually grew into the game. But it was Argentina who continued to look the more threatening and they might have taken the lead on 22 minutes after a lightning fast counter-attack. Di Maria and Banega combined delightfully down the left flank before the ball was transferred to Napoli's Gonzalo Higuain, whose attempt on goal was deflected wide for a corner.
From the ensuing set-piece, Rojo directed a header just wide of Bravo's post as another chance went begging. Chile came closest to breaking the deadlock in the 30th minute, when Alexis Sanchez burst onto a layoff from Vidal to go in on goal. The Arsenal forward picked his spot and shot low but Argentine keeper Sergio Romero was equal to the challenge, saving brilliantly to deny Chile an opener.
The second of two Chilean first half bookings arrived in the 44th minute, Gaitan again on the receiving of a rough tackle, this time from Mauricio Isla.
Sanchez drew a save from Romero in a bright Chilean start to the second half, but it was Argentina who opened the scoring in the 51st minute.
A swift counter-attack saw Banega release di Maria, whose quick low shot flew past Bravo and into the bottom corner as the Chile goalkeeper struggled to get his body into position. Eight minutes later, it was 2-0, di Maria turning creator this time with a deft pass to Banega whose low shot took a slight deflection off Isla to deceive Bravo.
The game continued to have an edge, with di Maria and Gary Medel both receiving yellow cards for an off-the-ball scuffle shortly afterwards. In injury time, Fuenzalida grabbed a late consolation with a headed goal from a free-kick but it was too little too late.
Published Date: Jun 07, 2016 10:17 am | Updated Date: Jun 07, 2016 10:17 am