RIO DE JANEIRO — A contest between Neymar and Lionel Messi is how many fans perceive the Copa America final between Brazil and Argentina.
The players themselves, though, see the bigger challenge on Saturday at Maracana Stadium will be between one of the toughest defensive lines to break in world soccer and the protection around one of the best players in history.
With a dash of pepper off the pitch to spice up the rivalry.
Neymar’s Brazil lineup has conceded only two goals in six matches at the Copa America. Veteran Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Éder Militão are taking shifts as starters without putting the Selecao under too much — if any — risk. Defensive midfielders Casemiro and Fred are relentless. Right-back Danilo and left-back Renan Lodi are keener to defend than go running up front.
These players initially criticized the South American soccer confederation for shifting the continental tournament to Brazil in emergency mode. Before the final against Messi’s Argentina, they’ve changed their narrative to winning at all costs. And keeping a clean sheet.
“The zone where Messi plays is where I play, we face each other a lot during matches,” Casemiro told a news conference on Thursday. “I can’t mark any player by myself, you need teammates. And you don’t mark only one player.
“It starts with Neymar, Richarlison and it ends in the goalkeeper — a team plays with 11, defends with 11 and attacks with 11.”
Meanwhile, Argentina has found a formula to try protect Messi, who now at age 34 plays much closer to the final third of the pitch. Midfielders Rodrigo de Paul and Giovani Lo Celso, notably creative players, are selflessly adding to a barrier around Messi. Although they still manage to give good passes to aggressive wingers Lautaro Martinez and Nico Gonzalez.
Messi has scored four goals and given five assists during this edition of Copa America. Before the tournament, he said it was his dream to win his first major title with Argentina, which hasn’t won major trophies in 28 years. He is playing Barcelona-style for his national team, scoring from free kicks, dazzling adversaries with frequent runs despite his age and giving plenty of passes.
“Messi is one step ahead of all of us,” De Paul said before the penalty shootout win against Colombia in the semifinals. “One is here to grow, to help. We are all on the same path. What matters is to win and represent Argentina well.”
The strengths of Brazil and Argentina also belie some of their weaknesses.
The Selecao trusts so much in its defense that its strikers are under-performing at Copa America. Richarlison and Roberto Firmino scored only one goal each for Brazil. Gabriel Jesus, who is suspended from the final, didn’t find the back of the net.
Argentina’s effort to protect Messi has also cost the team physically in the second half of most matches — that is precisely when Brazil scores more goals.
The Copa America final is the only game of the tournament which opens the possibility of extra-time before penalties. Argentina played its semifinal one day after Brazil advanced.
Juicy comments before the final could also affect the mood for the game. Brazil’s Richarlison said his team will trash talk the Argentinians during the match.
“We can manage, it isn’t just talking. We will talk and show it on the pitch,” the striker said. “We will provoke them, it will happen.”
It wasn’t very different in their previous clash in the South American tournament in 2019, when Brazil beat Argentina 2-0 in the semifinals with goals by Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. Neymar didn’t play in that tournament because of injury.
Argentinian goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez also provoked Colombia players during the penalty shootout that put his team in the final. Martinez made three saves.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro kicked off the final rivalry in an online meeting with his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernandez.
“I will say what the result will be. It will be 5-0,” said Bolsonaro, who is not expected to attend. Fernandez just laughed.