Copa defeat shines harsh light on Messi
ANOTHER tournament, another shattering defeat and another round of unfavourable comparisons to Diego Maradona.
Lionel Messi was left reflecting on another bitterly familiar failure on Saturday, after Argentina suffered an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat by Chile in the Copa America final.
Saturday's 1-4 loss on penalties, following a 0-0 draw after extra time, left the Argentinians still looking for their first major trophy since the 1993 Copa America.
It was also the second time in 12 months that Messi had finished on the losing side in a major final, following Argentina's extra-time loss to Germany at the World Cup last year.
His teammate, midfield general Javier Mascherano, was one of the few Argentina players to talk to reporters after the final at Santiago's National Stadium. He admitted that losing a second major title in a row "is torture". "The pain is immense," he added.
Saturday's defeat will reignite the debate about where Messi deserves to be ranked in the pantheon of the sport's greats.
Ahead of the Copa, he had admitted that "this generation is desperate to win a title with the national team".
For many, his extraordinary achievements at club level with Barcelona over the past decade have already guaranteed him a place alongside Pele and Maradona. But others insist that his failure to lead his country to international glory puts him behind Pele and Maradona, who won four World Cups between them.
Although Messi played a key role in helping Argentina reach the final of last year's World Cup in Brazil, his achievements at international level have not seared themselves in the memory in the way that Maradona's did during his displays at the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona is largely credited with single-handedly guiding Argentina to that World Cup title in Mexico.
However, Messi can justifiably reflect that the margins are impossibly fine.
In both last year's World Cup final and this year's Copa America final, he had helped create gilt-edged chances for Gonzalo Higuain that the striker squandered on each occasion.
Had either of those gone in - and helped Argentina to victory instead of defeat - Messi's right to be bracketed with Maradona and Pele would not be in doubt.
Mascherano has now played in three losing teams in Copa America finals.
"Three Copa America finals, three defeats... I can't explain the losing streak," he said. "We just didn't seem to have that little bit of luck that you sometimes need to have to win in finals. Is it karma? I don't know."
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino admitted that his men have only themselves to blame, lamenting that his side failed to take their chances.
"They were very clear chances that should have changed the outcome of the game," he said.