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Messi, Neymar to battle in dream Copa final for first title

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RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil goalkeeper Ederson makes a save during a training session at the Granja Comary training centre in Teresopolis on Thursday. — AFP
RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil goalkeeper Ederson makes a save during a training session at the Granja Comary training centre in Teresopolis on Thursday. — AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO: Former Barcelona team-mates Lionel Messi and Neymar will line up opposite each other in Saturday’s Copa America final looking to end a hoodoo that has also affected some of their countries’ greatest players.

Like Brazil’s Pele and Diego Maradona of Argentina before them, neither Messi nor Neymar has ever won the Copa.

That statistic will change for one of them in the dream final at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium.

For six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi, this will be his fourth Copa final and perhaps his last chance to finish on the winning side.

He’s been his team’s standout performer, as ever, scoring four goals and creating five more — the tournament leader in both categories.

But at 34, this may well be his last Copa and next year’s World Cup could be his last major international tournament altogether.

So far, finals have led only to disappointment for Messi having lost in 2007, 2015 and 2016 at the Copa, and seen his side beaten 1-0 by Germany at the 2014 World Cup.

Some people believe winning something with Argentina is Messi’s only remaining professional goal.

“We’ll try to stop him achieving this objective,” said Brazil centre-back Marquinhos. “As much as Messi, we also have players that deserve this title … like our own ‘Ney’ who wasn’t there for the last Copa,” he added.

At 29, Neymar has a bit more time on his side but he was injured and absent two years ago when Brazil won their ninth title on home soil, beating Peru 3-1 in the final.

But as well as the two superstars lining up on opposite sides on Saturday, this is a classic match between two world heavyweights.

“We’re going to play a final against our eternal rivals, the lifelong ones, the two most powerful national teams in South America and we hope … it will be a great match,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni.

Incredibly, these two sides are not even the two most successful ones in Copa history, with Uruguay having won 15 titles to Argentina’s 14 and Brazil’s nine.

In what is the 47th edition of the Copa, this is also just the fourth time these two have met in the final, with Argentina triumphing the first time in 1937 and Brazil coming out on top in 2004 and 2007.

And that is despite having faced each other more than 100 times in their history.

Argentina are unbeaten in 19 games going into the showdown at the Maracana stadium, while Brazil have not lost since Argentina beat them in a November 2019 friendly.

“Whether we like it or not they have the best player in the world [Messi], said Brazil forward Richarlison. “So that creates a certain rivalry. We know how difficult it is to beat Argentina, not just now but in the past as well, and we know how difficult it will be at the Maracana.”

This year’s final is especially interesting because of the timing, in terms of organisation and personnel.

The Copa was supposed to be held in Colombia and Argentina but Brazil took over at the last minute due to unrest in Colombia and a Covid-19 surge in Argentina.

That annoyed Argentina, who were counting on home advantage after Brazil hosted the last tournament two years ago — when they beat Argentina 2-0 in a semi-final in which controversial refereeing decisions fell in favour of the host nation.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro kicked off the final rivalry in an online meeting with his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernandez.

“I will say what the result will be. It will be 5-0,” said Bolsonaro, who is not expected to attend. Fernandez just laughed.

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