Soccer takes center stage this weekend as two of the international game’s biggest tournaments reach their conclusions.
First, Brazil and Argentina renew international soccer’s greatest rivalry as they meet in the Copa America final Saturday night.
Then, powerhouses England and Italy meet at London’s famed Wembley Stadium Sunday afternoon to crown a European Champion. Will football finally be coming home in the Euro 2020 final?
Another Chance for Messi to Take Home an International Trophy
Argentina superstar Lionel Messi has achieved nearly everything there is in club soccer.
With Barcelona, the 34-year-old has won La Liga, the Spanish first division, 10 times, and Champions League four times. He’s Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer by an absurd margin of over 400 goals more than second placed Cesar Rodridguez.
Messi has also won the Ballon D’or, soccer’s most prestigious individual trophy, a record six times. The diminutive Argentinian’s goals make grown men scream with joy and he’ll go down as one of the best players of all-time.
Yet one thing has always eluded Messi, a major international trophy. He won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with Argentina’s U-23 team, but has yet to win a major senior trophy 16 years into representing his national team.
He and Argentina have come painfully close on multiple occasions. Mario Gotze dashed Argentina’s hopes of winning the 2014 World Cup with an iconic extra-time winner that propelled Germany to its fourth World Cup title.
Soon after, Argentina lost to Chile in both the 2015 and 2016 Copa America Finals, both in heartbreaking penalty shootouts.
Now, Messi and Argentina get a rematch of the 2007 Copa America final vs Brazil, which they lost 3-0. This final and next year’s World Cup will likely be Messi’s last two opportunities to win a senior trophy with Argentina.
Messi has suffered heartbreak after heartbreak on the major international stage and briefly retired from Argentina duty after the 2016 Copa America final, in which he missed his penalty kick. Yet, he is Argentina’s all-time leader in both appearances and goals, with 150 and 76 respectively.
Acutely aware of his bare trophy cabinet with Argentina, it’s been Messi’s tournament so far. He leads the Copa America field with four goals, including sealing Argentina’s quarterfinal win against Ecuador with an excellent free kick and slotting home his penalty in the semifinal shootout vs Colombia.
Messi has also broken the record for most assists in a single Copa America, with five. He’s been a man on a mission thus far and is within striking distance of his first ever trophy with Argentina.
Argentina topped group A in the tournament with three wins and a draw. While Messi’s supporting cast has long been criticized, they’ve recently stepped up.
Young Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez put Argentina in front in the semifinal vs Colombia just seven minutes in and converted his penalty kick in the shootout.
He was assisted by none other than Messi, who played through a bleeding ankle. Martinez trails only Messi for top scorer honors at this year’s Copa America, with three goals.
Emi Martinez, who was briefly Arsenal’s number one keeper before being sold to Aston Villa last Summer, put on a clinic in the penalty shootout vs Colombia. He saved three of the five penalties he faced and his heroics sent Argentina into the final.
Nicolas Otamendi has been the lynchpin in an Argentina defense that has allowed just three goals in six games. The supporting cast will need to step up to beat a formidable Brazil team who won the last edition of Copa America, in 2019.
Brazil Could Repeat
Now, Brazil will play the final in its national stadium, the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. However, there won’t be any fans in attendance due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Argentina and Colombia were originally scheduled to jointly host the tournament. Their soccer federations were forced to pull out due to civil unrest and the pandemic, respectively.
Amidst a challenging COVID situation of its own, Brazil seized an opportunity to host and finished first in Group B, with three wins and a draw.
Midfielder Lucas Paqueta, who plays for Lyon in France, has scored two timely goals to propel Brazil to the finals. Paqueta scored the game’s only goal in both the quarterfinal vs Chile and semifinal vs Peru.
Captain Thiago Silva and Marquinhos were center back partners at Paris Saint Germain for six seasons before the former departed for Chelsea. Despite that, Silva and Marquinhos still form the spine of Brazil’s team.
The 36-year old Silva started and won the Champions League Final vs Manchester City and has been one of Brazil’s most consistent performers over the last decade.
Forward Gabriel Jesus also played in the Champions League Final, for Manchester City. Unfortunately he is still suspended for a red card he received for a flying kick on a Chilean player in the quarterfinal.
Jesus will be missed, as he scored Brazil’s first goal in a 2-0 win vs Argentina in the 2019 Copa America Semifinals, the last competitive meeting between the two.
Star forward Neymar was Messi’s club teammate at Barcelona for four seasons. Neymar, Messi, and Luis Suarez formed a historically formidable trio but Neymar was largely in Messi’s shadow.
Neymar scored 68 goals in 123 La Liga games between 2013-2017. In that same timeframe, Messi, who has been at Barcelona since he was 13, scored 134 goals in 136 La Liga games.
Like Kyrie Irving leaving LeBron’s hometown Cavaliers for the Celtics in 2017, it is widely speculated that Neymar left Barcelona for PSG to step out of Messi’s shadow.
As the star man at PSG, Neymar can better compete for individual accolades like the Ballon D’or. He’s never finished in the top three for the award but he is getting close to breaking an impressive record for Brazil.
He’s 10 goals from breaking Pele’s long-standing record of 77 goals for Brazil. At 29, Neymar has at least a few good years left in him and should shatter the record.
Neymar has scored two goals and provided two assists at the tournament, including on Paqueta’s winner vs Peru. He’s always a threat to beat defenders with flashy skills and a burst of pace and has a prime opportunity to outshine Messi on South America’s biggest stage.
Neymar was injured for the 2019 Copa America so, like Messi, this would be his first Copa America title. He did, however, win the 2013 Confederations Cup with Brazil.
The Brazil-Argentina rivalry has been hotly contested in its long history, but outside of the annual “Superclasico de las Americas” friendly, Argentina last beat Brazil in a competitive match in 2005.
Brazil and Argentina have met over 100 times in their history. Brazil leads the series 41-38, with 26 draws between them. If anyone is capable of turning the tides, certainly it is Lionel Messi. Brazil does, however, boast a more complete squad and is favored to win the match.
Italy Soldiers On
European powerhouses Italy and England meet at a major tournament final for the first time, in the Euro 2020 finale.
Italy was perhaps the most dominant team in the tournament in the group stage. Gli Azzurri scored seven goals and kept three straight clean sheets en route to a first-place finish in Group A.
The knockout stage has been a different challenge for Italy. It took extra time to defeat a tricky Austria team in the round of 16. Austria’s Marko Arnautovic had a potential winning goal called back for a slight offside in the second half, which was a huge scare.
Italy came out firing in the first extra time period, with winger Federico Chiesa putting in a left footed finish in the 95th minute. Midfielder Matteo Pessina added a second and Italy held on for a 2-1 win after a late Austria goal.
Italy started excellently in the quarterfinal vs Belgium with brilliant goals from midfielder Nicolo Barella and winger Lorenzo Insigne. The Italians then cheaply gave away a penalty at the end of the first half, which Romelu Lukaku made no mistake in converting.
Italy kept Kevin de Bruyne and a talented Belgium team at bay in the second half to advance to the Euro semifinals for the sixth time in its history. In the process, though, Italy lost left back Leonardo Spinazzola, who was having a breakout tournament, to a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Chelsea man Emerson replaced Spinazzola and Italy faced its toughest test yet in the semifinal. Stuck in its own defensive half for much of the game, Italy had to fend off attack after attack.
But, after an easy save off of a cross in the 60th minute, keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma quickly and smartly threw the ball out to Marco Verratti, an energizer bunny of a midfielder. Verratti sent the ball out on the wing to Insigne, who played striker Ciro Immobile in on a through ball.
Chiesa picked up the deflected ball at the edge of the box, took a couple touches, and curled a beautiful effort past Spanish GK Unai Simon to put Italy up 1-0 against the run of play. With his play throughout the tournament, Chiesa, who is the son of former player Enrico Chiesa, has made himself an Italian hero.
Spanish substitute striker Alvaro Morata leveled the scoreline at one some 20 minutes later and sent the game into extra time. Outshot by Spain 16-7 and outpossessed 71-29, Italy was on the back foot for much of the game.
The backline, spearheaded by legendary Juventus veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci and boosted by a brilliant performance by right back Giovanni di Lorenzo, held on for another 30 minutes to send the match into penalties.
Italy midfielder Manuel Locatelli, who scored two goals in the group stage against Switzerland, missed the first penalty kick, as did Spain’s Dani Olmo.
Italy and Spain both made their next two PKs, then Italy’s Federico Bernardeschi powered a left footed strike into the top corner to put them up 3-2.
Morata had another opportunity to score on Donnarumma but the Italian keeper heroically saved his poorly placed penalty. It was up to midfielder Jorginho, who has been Italy’s midfield maestro throughout the tournament, to send Italy through.
The Chelsea Champions League winner took a confident hop step, sending Simon the wrong way, and calmly slotted his penalty in the back of the net to put Italy through to it’s fourth Euro final. With the win, Italy’s unbeaten run extended to 33 matches, the most in its history.
After embarrassingly missing out on the 2018 World Cup, Italy hasn’t lost a match since September 2018, to Euro 2016 Champions Portugal. The Italians are just two games away from matching Brazil and Spain’s joint international record of 35 games unbeaten.
The heart and soul of the team is 36-year-old captain and center back Chiellini, who has played for Italy since 2004. He wasn’t called up for the 2006 World Cup, Italy’s last international triumph, but has made 111 appearances and is one of the best ever Italian defenders, no small feat in a country that has produced some of the greatest defenders of all time.
Chiellini embodies the ethic of this Italian team, which isn’t dominated by egos or one star player. Sure, striker Ciro Immobile has led Serie A in scoring a few times, Insigne captains Napoli and Verratti has played a big part in transforming PSG into one of the world’s best clubs.
But, when this group of players comes together for the national team, none of that matters. Italy will do whatever it takes to win, even if it’s not pretty.
Manager Roberto Mancini deserves a lot of credit for picking up the pieces after the failure of missing out on the World Cup and getting this group back to competing on the world stage.
Last ditch tackles and blocks may not show up on the scoresheet, but they can be every bit as important as goals. Chiellini may not be one of the most recognizable names in soccer, but he was an integral part of Juventus’s nine straight Serie A titles from 2012-2020 and sings lead vocals for the famed pre-match Italian national anthem.
Golden Opportunity for Perennial Underachievers England
England’s Premier League is almost indisputably the best league in the world. It features the cream of the crop in club soccer and the Champions League Final has been contested by all English clubs two of the last three years.
Yet, England’s national team has reached and won just one major tournament final, the 1966 World Cup, which was also played at Wembley Stadium.
The better half of the last 50 years have been marred by disappointment after disappointment. Yet, Gareth Southgate’s England team built some momentum by reaching the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup, which it hadn’t done since 1990.
England picked up right where it left off in 2018 and methodically reached the final. Now, England is slightly favored despite not defeating Italy in a major tournament since 1977.
England is rife with attacking talent, in Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. It also boasts one of the world’s best strikers, Tottenham’s Harry Kane.
England’s captain Kane, who has been rumored to be leaving Tottenham, has never won a trophy for club or country. Like Messi, he has suffered heartbreak on the biggest stages, losing the 2019 Champions League Final to Liverpool and a pair of League Cup finals.
Kane has come alive in the knockout stage with four goals after failing to score in the group stage. He’s also well on his way to becoming England’s all time leading scorer and has won the Premier League golden boot on three separate occasions, including this past season.
In a sixth game at Wembley in seven Euro matches, England will play in front of over 60,000 fans. The England fans were euphoric as the Three Lions defeated Denmark 2-1 in a compelling semifinal contest that was decided in extra time.
Denmark’s Mikkel Daamsgaard slotted home a free kick as England keeper Jordan Pickford led with his wrong hand.
England came roaring back after Kane played Saka in on the right flank and Saka sent a nicely placed pass that Danish defender Simon Kjaer couldn’t deal with and sent into his own net.
Pickford and England looked nervous throughout but dominated the extra time period. Sterling, who has been England’s best player throughout the tournament, fell in the box and was given a controversial penalty.
Kane’s initial effort was saved by Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel, but he scored his own rebound to put the Wembley crowd into a frenzy and send England to the final.
Denmark went on a Cinderella run of its own, especially after star midfielder Chrstian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch during the opening match vs Finland.
Medical professionals rushed to save Eriksen’s life and brought him back to consciousness minutes after he suffered a cardiac arrest. Eriksen was evaluated at the hospital and had an automatic defibrillator implanted but it’s unclear whether he’ll play professionally again.
Credit to manager Kasper Hjulmand and Kjaer, Denmark’s captain, for rallying the squad after a terrifying scene. Denmark was cajoled into finishing it’s match with Finland just a couple hours after Eriksen’s collapse and fell 1-0 despite outshooting Finland 22-1.
Denmark narrowly fell to Belgium, 2-1, in its next game and needed a big win in its final group game to secure a knockout round place. The Danes responded by destroying Russia 4-1 in front of euphoric home fans in Copenhagen to finish second in Group B and advance.
Denmark again scored four goals in the round of 16, sending Wales packing in a resounding shutout win. The Danes beat Czech Republic 2-1 in a tough quarterfinal match to set up a date at Wembley with England but couldn’t quite get the job done.
While Denmark won’t be playing in the final, Eriksen and the medical professionals who saved his life were invited to the final by UEFA.
Not considered a strength coming into the tournament, England’s defense kept five consecutive clean sheets to start the tournament before conceding to Denmark. England still hasn’t conceded in the run of play.
The center back pairing of John Stones and Harry Maguire has been the tournament’s best. Maguire also poses an attacking threat on set pieces and will be a handful for Italy to deal with.
Right back Kyle Walker has awe inspiring recovery speed, which has gotten England out of some sticky situations. Much maligned by Jose Mourinho during his time at Manchester United, left back Luke Shaw has done an admirable job.
Attacking midfielder Mount is brilliant with the ball at his feet and was a key part of Chelsea’s Champions League winning side under Thomas Tuchel. The double midfield pivot of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice is inexperienced but has adequately protected England’s back line and done well in possession.
England’s toughest game, on paper at least, came in the round of 16 vs Germany. Southgate’s men passed the test with flying colors as goals from Sterling and Kane sent the Germans home.
England masterfully dispatched Ukraine in the quarterfinals in a 4-0 beatdown. Nerves almost got the better of England in the semifinal and it’ll be interesting to see how the approach changes vs Italy.
After a 45-year trophy drought, England desperately needs football to come home. One thing is for sure, the Italians won’t make it easy.