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Sports

Argentina Tops Chile 2-1 with Messi on the Bench

The 2016 Copa América Centenario duel a rematch of the 2015 final

Argentina’s Ángel Di María, right, celebrates after scoring against Chile as Chile’s Gary Medel, center, sits on the ground and Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuaín, right, celebrates during a Copa América Centenario Group A soccer match at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, Monday, June 6, 2016, photo: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez
2 years ago

SANTA CLARA, California — On the day his grandmother died back home, Ángel Di María’s mother asked him to stay with his team, stay focused, and represent his country well in Copa América.

He made them all proud with a gutsy performance.

Di María scored in the 51st minute off a pass from Ever Banega, then later assisted on Banega’s goal, and top-ranked Argentina looked plenty powerful without injured captain Lionel Messi in beating Chile 2-1 in its Copa América opener Monday night.

After his goal, Di María held up a shirt reading “Grandma, I’ll miss you very much.”

“I am so happy because I was able to score. It was for my grandmother and my family that are having a difficult time,” Di María said. “In the morning when I knew what happened I knew that I would score today, and that happened, and it was for her. I was afraid of not playing, but if I didn’t play, my grandma was going to get mad.”

His coach didn’t even know until afterward and was impressed with Di María’s poise given the emotional day.

“Those are very important circumstances and aspects of life that transcend football,” Gerardo Martino said. “He didn’t tell me anything. He was feeling good to play. Not all people respond the same in those situations.”

Di María assisted on Banega’s deflected goal in the 59th minute as Messi cheered from the bench.

José Pedro Fuenzalida scored in the third minute of stoppage time as Chile avoided a shutout.

Argentina’s Ramiro Funes Mori, right, and Chile’s Eduardo Vargas fight for the ball during a Copa America Centenario Group A soccer match at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday June 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Argentina’s Ramiro Funes Mori, right, and Chile’s Eduardo Vargas fight for the ball during a Copa América Centenario Group A soccer match at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday June 6, 2016. Photo: AP/Jeff Chiu

There were five yellow cards issued in a testy rematch of last year’s final won by La Roja on penalty kicks. Cards were given to Di María and Gary Medel in the 65th minute after they tussled near the left sideline of Argentina’s offensive half.

Chile’s Eugenio Mena was taken off on a stretcher in the 53rd minute after pulling up and appearing to grab his right hamstring, with no contact made.

Playing at home last year, Chile beat Argentina and Messi 4-1 on penalty kicks for La Roja’s first Copa championship. Argentina’s senior team has not won a major title since the 1993 Copa, losing to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.

Argentina beat Chile 2-1 in World Cup qualifying in Santiago on March 24.

Monday’s match in the San Francisco 49ers’ $1.3 billion stadium attracted a sellout crowd of 69,451 — outdrawing the Friday opener in which Colombia beat the United States 2-0 and a crowd of 67,439 was announced.

Both teams had good chances in a fast-paced first half featuring two yellow cards against Chile.

Nicolás Gaitán had a header from 8 yards in the second minute that Chile goalkeeper Johnny Herrera punched over the crossbar.

In the 18th minute, Gaitán — starting in place of Messi — went down hard and his right knee buckled after a tackle from behind by Arturo Vidal that earned him a yellow card.

Gonzalo Higuaín’s shot from the left side in the box went just left off the post in the 23rd minute, then Argentina had another chance thwarted on Marcos Rojo’s header off a corner kick.

La Albiceleste goalkeeper Mariano Andujar made a great diving stop in the 30th minute, using his right hand to swat away a shot by Alexis Sánchez after a pair of pretty passes from Marcelo Díaz and Vidal, prompting Messi to clap on the bench.

“The team is different if Messi is playing or not,” Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said. “Messi’s probably more dangerous than any other soccer player. That’s an advantage we had. But the player who replaced Messi, Gaitán, played well. He has other virtues, other characteristics. He helped them have a better structure and made them a solid team. They were able to take advantage of their opportunity.”

The news about Messi not starting was hardly a surprise given the 28-year-old Barcelona star’s recent back injury. The midfielder practiced on the side during Sunday’s training and not with the full team.

Martino is optimistic Messi might be ready to return for Friday’s match against Panama in Chicago.

“Everything has to do with him being healthy and in good condition to play the next game,” Martino said. “We expect in four days he will be in condition to play. We’re thinking he will recover by then.”

Messi testified last Thursday in his tax fraud trial in Spain and joined the national team the next day. He didn’t get to catch up with Golden State Warriors superstar MVP Stephen Curry, who instead offered his well wishes after a Game 2 NBA Finals win against Cleveland.

“He’s got business to take care of, so good luck to him,” Curry said. “I know he’s going to be ready.”

Chile defender Gonzalo Jara played in his first Copa match since sticking his finger into the backside of Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani in the 2015 Copa quarterfinals that earned Jara a three-game suspension.

U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati was in attendance Monday ahead of traveling to Chicago for the Americans’ second Group A stage match Tuesday against Costa Rica.

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