BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Brazil without Neymar has proved to be better than Argentina with Lionel Messi.
In a performance that ended with “ole” chants from the crowd, Brazil beat Argentina 2-0 on Tuesday and will play Sunday’s Copa America final at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro seeking its 10th South American title.
Superstar Messi, meanwhile, remains without trophies for his national team despite showing his best performance in the tournament at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte.
Gabriel Jesus opened the scoring at 19 minutes after a samba-style play from right-back Dani Alves. It was the striker’s first goal in the tournament.
Roberto Firmino added the second at 71 minutes assisted by Jesus in front of 56,000 fans that sang chants on Messi’s lack of trophies with Argentina and Diego Maradona’s drug problems to celebrate.
“This win is for our coaching staff,” said Alves, one of the best players of the match. “They are beaten a lot, and we dedicate this to them. I believe many people doubt us a lot, but we trust our coaching staff very much, we trust our plan, our work.”
Brazil’s opponent will be determined on Wednesday when defending champions Chile take on underdogs Peru at the Arena do Gremio in Porto Alegre.
Brazil and its coach Tite were under criticism before the superclasico after an unimpressive performance in the quarterfinals against Paraguay. The hosts advanced to the semifinals on penalties after a goalless draw.
Wearing a flamboyant golden jacket, striker Neymar, who left the squad shortly before Copa America because of a right ankle injury, celebrated Brazil’s victory with friends and with far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in the stadium’s corporate boxes.
For the first time since Copa America began, Argentina repeated its starting lineup of the previous 2-0 win over Venezuela, keeping its up-front trio with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Lautaro Martinez. He also kept central defender Juan Foyth improvised as a right-back.
But the approach against Brazil was clearly different, with the team sitting back and preparing for counters.
Brazil had two changes to face its archrivals, with midfielder Casemiro returning from suspension in Allan’s place and Alex Sandro substituting injured Filipe Luis in the left-back.
Coach Tite said his main concern to beat Argentina was to create difficulties for “the extraterrestrial,” in a reference to Messi.
“That center of the game with Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Arthur and Casemiro, was essential to control the game and not let the extraterrestrial play,” Tite said.
Still, Argentina still was first to get an opportunity to open the scoring. At 12 minutes, Leandro Paredes fired from long distance and the ball flew near Alisson’s bar.
That did not intimidate Brazil. On the first goal, Alves flicked the ball over Marcos Acuna, left Paredes behind and passed to Firmino on the right flank. With a low cross, he allowed Jesus to score only meters away from goalkeeper Franco Armani.
The visitors nearly leveled at 30 minutes, when Messi took a free kick and Aguero headed the ball onto the bar. Brazil’s defense cleared and avoided conceding its first goal in five Copa America matches.
After the break Brazil took extra precautions by substituting winger Everton for midfielder Willian. But that did not stop Messi and Argentina.
At 57 minutes, Messi hit Alisson’s right post from close range. He also got the rebound, crossed the ball into the penalty box, but no Argentinian was near enough to push it to the net.
To keep the pressure on the Brazilians, coach Lionel Scaloni substituted midfielder Acuna for winger Angel di Maria. But a counter at 71 minutes punished his audacity.
Jesus stole the ball in his half of the field and bulldozed through Argentina’s left flank. Facing Armani, he gently assisted Firmino to score the final goal.
“They were more efficient, we had our chances and could not score,” said Argentina defender Nicolas Tagliafico. “We played well for some time, badly for some time.”
His coach disagrees: “By merit, the team that should have advanced to the final was Argentina,” Scaloni said.
Scaloni complained about the refereeing, saying video review should have been used in two alleged penalties. He also insisted said his team had heard a whistle in the beginning of Jesus’ move before Firmino scored his goal.
Asked if he agrees with the Argentine coach, Tite said: “It is only human he puts it this way. I can say Brazil played very consistently.”
“In a big match you cannot dominate all the time,” he added.
At the end of the match, Argentina’s Paredes wept sitting on the pitch as Messi once again looked distraught.
The Brazilians celebrated with moderation after a match that could have a different ending if Argentina had found the net instead of the posts on two occasions.
Tuesday’s defeat will extend Argentina’s 26-year-old title drought. The team will play for third place of Copa America on Saturday in Sao Paulo.
The match at the Mineirao was once again marked by homophobic chants of the Brazilian fans when Armani took his goal kicks. Brazil’s soccer confederation has already been fined by FIFA in $15,000 for similar chants at the opening match at the Morumbi Stadium in Sao Paulo.
On Sunday, Brazil will play at the Maracana Stadium for the first time since the 2013 Confederations’ Cup final. Its latest Copa America title was won in 2007.
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