The roles were reversed as last year’s finalists Argentina and Chile met each other in the first round of matches in Group D of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, while underdogs Panama, appearing in their first major tournament, managed to pile on the misery for a struggling Bolivia.
Lionel Messi started on the bench for Argentina as they took on a Chile team that had beaten them 4-1 on penalties in the finals of the 2015 Copa America in July.
But even the game between two minnows in Panama and Bolivia caught the eye, as both matches in Group D turned out to be thrilling affairs with some great end-to-end action and little regard for dogged defensive work.
Argentina 2-1 Chile
Angel Di Maria is fast emerging as the most consistent player in a star-studded Argentina lineup, as he once again made a telling difference against one of the strongest opponents in the tournament. The aggression was threatening to boil over for both sides as they played in front of a 67,439 crowd, and was exemplified in the first half when Arturo Vidal avoided a red card for plowing down Abliceleste forward Nicolas Gaitan from behind.
Gaitan started in place of global superstar Lionel Messi, who had just flown down to San Francisco where the match was being held, after standing for trial in his tax fraud case in Spain. The 28-year-old forward was left on the bench because of a back injury.
After a first half peppered with chances for both sides, the action picked up in the second half as Angel di Maria scored within 5 minutes of the break to give Argentina the lead. Three minutes later, Di Maria was at it again as he set up Internazionale midfielder Ever Banega to double Argentina’s lead.
The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder was then in focus for all the wrong reasons as he and Chilean defender Gary Medel clashed on the sidelines and were each given yellow cards. Following that, the match was all Argentina, as Chile tried to attack but couldn’t get bodies in the box. The usually fiery Alexis Sanchez looked subdued and the team as a whole seemed to be jarred by the short flurry from Di Maria.
All they could manage was a consolation goal in extra-time from substitute Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, as Argentina stamped their authority on Group D and will now surely progress barring some extraordinary football from Panama and Bolivia.
Panama 2-1 Bolivia
The other match of the day wasn’t a clash of heavyweights, but provided some exciting action between the two lesser known teams of Group D, as an exuberant Panama side were fired up for their first ever competitive match in a major tournament.
In a rain splattered Citrus Bowl stadium in Florida, Panama striker Blas Perez belied his advanced years, as the 35-year-old scored an early goal to put the underdogs in front in the 11th minute.
The Bolivian team weren’t much ahead of Panama in terms of expectations and form though, losing five of their six South American World Cup Qualifiers and also suffering a 4-0 defeat at the hands of USA last week. Yet they managed to somehow snatch an equalizer as Juan Carlos Arce smashed it in after a poor clearance by Panama defender Harold Communigs in the 54th minute.
However, the grand old man of Panama Blas Perez again blasted Panama into the lead three minutes from stoppage time to give the side their first competitive win in their first competitive game, a momentous occasion for the 13,000-plus travelling fans.
The victory gives Panama a-chance of qualifying from the group, albeit a very slim one considering they will now have to come up against two of the tournament heavyweights in Argentina and Chile. This could also be the final curtain call for Bolivia coach Julio Baldivieso, as his side now look very likely to finish bottom of the pile in Group D.