The Copa America final between Argentina and hosts Chile could turn upon a showdown between Lionel Messi’s brilliance and the combative Gary Medel, whose “Pitbull” nickname sums up his style.
The well-travelled defensive midfielder will have the near-impossible job of controlling Messi, known as “The Flea”, in Saturday’s clash between two teams, arch-rivals who are each desperate for Copa success.
Messi danced around Paraguay’s defenders as Argentina fired six goals past them in the semi-final this week. Medel provoked jitters for his side when he scored an own goal that put Peru level before Chile secured a 2-1 win to reach the final.
Argentina captain Messi has now gone more than 900 minutes without scoring a goal from open play in an international game. But he remains a world-class threat who had a hand in virtually all of Argentina’s goals against Paraguay.
MORE FROM COPA AMERICA
“Hopefully I can score in the final, but it really doesn’t matter if I score or if one of my teammates does. The most important thing is that we have accomplished our prime objective, which was to qualify for the final,” Messi said.
Medel, 27, embodies the never-say-die spirit of the Chilean team which has never won the Copa. The Inter Milan player always seems ready for a rumble and says that as a child he was always in trouble for fighting.
“I am a nice kind of crazy,” Medel said in an interview while at Cardiff City ahead of the 2013/14 Premier League season.
Medel’s kind of crazy is getting sent off for slapping Atletico Madrid rival Diego Costa (now at Chelsea) while playing at Sevilla. Medel was also sent off in the semi-final of the Under-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007, which was followed by a showdown between Chilean players and police in the car park after.
Canadian newspapers said that Medel was shot in the back with a taser. He will not say what happened.
But his pinpoint passing and rugged defending could be enough to unnerve Messi, whom he impressively controlled in some Primera Liga encounters.
A parallel confrontation will come between Chile’s Arturo Vidal, also no stranger to trouble, and Javier Mascherano, Argentina’s midfield enforcer.
Vidal has scored three goals in the tournament, one behind leader Chile’s Eduardo Vargas, but had an infamous run-in with the law after smashing up his Ferrari while returning home drunk from a casino to celebrate a victory.
Vidal forms the steel of the Chilean midfield while Mascherano is the trusted old hand who backs up Messi for club and country and can weather any storm.
Mascherano has called for calm ahead of the showdown between the rivals from either side of the Andes.
“I hope that people can understand that football is a sport, not war,” Mascherano said.
“The past is the past. We must not put sport in the middle of politics. Chile and Argentina are brother countries, we have to show mutual respect.”
FOLLOW US ON TWITTER @NatSportUAE