SANTA CLARA, United States, June 7, (AFP): Argentina shrugged off the injury absence of Lionel Messi to launch their Copa America Centenario campaign with a 2-1 defeat of defending champions Chile Monday.
Goals from Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega secured a deserved three points for Argentina, who exacted sweet revenge for their defeat to the Chileans in last year’s Copa America final.
Chile substitute Jose Fuenzalida scored an injury time consolation for the holders.
The Argentines will now be firm favorites to progress to the quarter-finals as Group D winners with games against Panama and Bolivia to come.
Injured Argentina captain Messi watched from the substitutes’ bench at Levi’s Stadium after failing to recover in time from a sore back suffered in a friendly win over Honduras last month.
But the Barcelona superstar’s absence was barely noticeable, with Nicolas Gaitan slotting into Argentina’s attack and making an instant impression, hitting the woodwork with a header after only two minutes.
That missed chance set the tone for the early exchanges of an entertaining first half which saw Argentina create the lion’s share of opportunities without managing to find a breakthrough goal.
Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo was the next to test Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, unleashing a dipping shot from 20 yards which the Barcelona stopper comfortably saved in the 17th minute.
In midfield meanwhile a fascinating battle for supremacy was unfolding between Argentina’s rugged enforcer Javier Mascherano and Chile’s combative Bayern Munich star Arturo Vidal.
Vidal did not wait long to make his mark on the contest, crashing into the back of Gaitan with an ugly challenge to earn a yellow card from Uruguayan referee Daniel Fedorczuk.
Chile, fielding the core of their victorious Copa America side, gradually grew into the game.
But it was Argentina who continued to look the more threatening and they might have taken the lead on 22 minutes after a lightning fast counter-attack.
Di Maria and Banega combined delightfully down the left flank before the ball was transferred to Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain whose attempt on goal was deflected wide for a corner.
From the ensuing setpiece Rojo directed a header just wide of Bravo’s post as another chance went begging.
Chile came closest to breaking the deadlock in the 30th minute, when Alexis Sanchez burst onto a layoff from Vidal to go in on goal.
The Arsenal forward picked his spot and shot low but Argentine keeper Sergio Romero was equal to the challenge, saving brilliantly to deny Chile an opener.
The second of two Chilean first half bookings arrived in the 44th minute, Gaitan again on the receiving of a rough tackle, this time from Mauricio Isla.
Sanchez drew a save from Romero in a bright Chilean start to the second half but it was Argentina who opened the scoring on 51 minutes.
A swift counter-attack saw Banega release Di Maria, whose quick low shot flew past Bravo and into the bottom corner as the Chile goalkeeper struggled to get his body into position.
Eight minutes later it was 2-0, Di Maria turning creator this time with a deft pass to Banega whose low shot took a slight deflection off Isla to deceive Bravo.
The game continued to have an edge with Di Maria and Gary Medel both receiving yellow cards for an off-the-ball scuffle shortly afterwards.
In injury time Fuenzalida grabbed a late consolation with a headed goal from a free-kick but it was too little too late.
Panama striker Blas Perez has certainly seen his share of the world, playing in eight different countries in his career, but somehow he always seems to save his best for his homeland.
Goals in each half from the 35-year-old gave Panama a 2-1 over Bolivia in the Copa American Centenario on Monday — a win hailed as “historic” by Panamanians given they had never faced South American opponents in a competitive match before.
Certainly, judging by the reaction of Perez, who collapsed to the ground and was mobbed by his team-mates after striking the 87th minute winner, the victory was more than just a good start to their Group D campaign.
“We are enjoying this one,” Perez told reporters after the game. “It is our first time in the Copa and it is a joy.”
The brace took Perez’s career tally for his country to 41 goals in 106 appearances and will have surely ended any debate over whether coach Hernan Dario Gomez was right to stick with the forward despite his age.
“Blas works so hard, does so much running and he knows how to score,” Panama keeper Jaime Penedo told AFP.
“He is also a great guy, a real leader in the dressing room,” he added.
Perez has seen plenty of different dressing rooms having played for 16 clubs in eight countries.
After debuting in his homeland, he has performed in Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Canada where he currently plays for Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps.
“He is a man that represents a lot of things on and off the field,” Gomez said. “He has had his share of heaven and hell but again, he was out there demonstrating his qualities for 90 minutes, running and fighting.
“He scored two very important goals tonight. This group loves him and he transmits a lot of important things to the group. We have supported him, even through his difficult times,” Gomez added. “He has great experience, he is a great man and Panama loves him.”
Panama has never reached a World Cup final and while the improving nation certainly has a chance for Russia 2018 that may come too late for Perez.
That will make the upcoming two games in Group D, against Argentina and Chile, even more special for the Panama City born forward.
“Argentina will be hard, Chile too,” Perez said. “But our coach just told us — now go and enjoy this Cup.”
Judging by the smile on his face, Perez needs no invitation.