Argentina won their first trophy since 1993 on Saturday, and Lionel Messi finally earned silverware with his national team as they beat Brazil 1-0 at the Maracana in the 2021 Copa America final. Angel Di Maria's first-half goal was enough as Lionel Scaloni's team ran through the tournament with impressive results with Messi led the way, validating his international career with a long-awaited trophy. Brazil, who struggled with consistency in front of goal for much of the tournament, had a nightmare in attack in a match that just never went their way.
Argentina finished the night with just six shots, putting two on frame, while Brazil had 13 shots but only put two of theirs on goal. The match featured 41 fouls that considerably slowed down the pace, adding to the frustration of the hosts, while Argentina were content with sitting back and defending their lead.
The winning goal came in the 22nd minute from Di Maria, who got free down the right after an error from Brazil right back Renan Lodi. A fine ball from Rodrigo de Paul really should have been settled by the defender, but he took a poor angle on it, and it fell right to Di Maria, who beat Ederson with a ridiculous chip. Take a look:
Argentina didn't have many great chances the rest of the way, while Brazil were able to infiltrate the box time and time again, but some inspiring performances from Nicolas Otamendi, German Pezzella and most of all Cristian Romero helped Argentina become the first team to hold Brazil scoreless since ... Argentina in November of 2019.
As the match was nearing its end, the referee gave five minutes of added time, and when the final whistle blew, every player from Argentina sprinted to Messi, who was down on his knees in disbelief:
As you can imagine, he was the focal point of the post-match party on the field.
With the win, Messi answered the question -- would he ever win a major trophy with Argentina? The answer was yes, with him as the best player, in an iconic stadium that for some will cement him as the greatest ever.
Here are three takeaways from the match:
Messi's most magical night
He was there in 2007, playing his first Copa America, losing to Brazil 3-0 in the final. He was there in 2011, when Argentina hosted the tournament and was bounced in the quarterfinals. Then there was that 2014 World Cup final loss to Germany. And that wasn't even close to being it. There was the 2015 Copa America heartbreak against Chile in penalty kicks, and a repeat of that nightmare a year later at MetLife Stadium. A poor 2018 World Cup and having no chance at the 2019 Copa America all led to this moment -- perhaps Messi's best chance to win an international trophy for the rest of his storied career.
In earning the cup's best player award and being top scorer, the once-retired-from-international-duty superstar was the hero and the leader they needed throughout, with his magical free kicks, his leadership on the pitch and his well-timed passes opening up the space that they needed.
While Argentina have the big name, it's been years since they've had the game. While not many people gave them a legit chance to win it, Messi always believed. If he didn't, he would have actually quit the national team a long time ago and stopped coming back. And holding on to that little hope of winning a trophy paid off in the most unimaginable way, winning it at the Maracana against their most heated rival.
Through all the downs, on this night, for the first and perhaps only time, Messi is a champion with Argentina.
Redemption for Di Maria ... that was planned
What a moment from Di Maria. While he always seems to get injured in the biggest of Argentina's matches, even going down in this one, he earned legendary status on this night. His fine finish wasn't just a fluke or a bit of luck though. Di Maria, speaking to TyC Sports after the match, said him and De Paul talked before the game about how they could expose Lodi. Di Maria claimed that De Paul told him Lodi can fall asleep at the back, and that they could take advantage of it, and that is what they did.
In what was a goal most can only dream about, let alone in a final, Di Maria pulled off one of the most memorable moments in the storied history of the Argentina national team.
As for De Paul ... I'm sure Lodi is going to love hearing that he thinks he can be exposed. De Paul is expected to join Lodi at Atletico Madrid this summer.
A defensive performance out of nowhere
Look, Argentina's defense is usually cringe-worthy. While they have only conceded multiple goals in three of their last 23 games, the amount of chances that they tend to give up is always alarming. Against Ecuador in the quarterfinals, in a game they won 3-0, Ecuador had enough good chances to draw that game 3-3. A lack of organization, a lack of awareness and just silly, simple errors have opened the door for teams to do damage. We saw Colombia do it in World Cup qualifying against Argentina in June.
But in this one, it was a performance that Argentines will never forget. While Romero was a doubt for this match due to injury and having not played for about two weeks, his surprise inclusion uplifted this team big time. From some well-timed challenges to just being a rock in the air, his return seemed to lift up those around him, especially Nicolas Otamendi. The 33-year-old turned back the clock like crazy, putting together form reminiscent of his 2014-15 at Valencia or his early days at Manchester City. While he was playing with fire for much of the match, he had countless moments where he was the last man, saving the day. Even German Pezzella off the bench, replacing Romero, had a key stop at a tight angle on Gabriel Barbosa.
It was not a match where not everything went right, but every single defender knew the role, played it well and produced what will be the most memorable night of their lives.