SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the marquee match-up of the 2016 Copa America Centenario so far, Argentina beat Group D adversaries Chile 2-1 at sold-out Levi's Stadium.
The opponents were the same as faced off for the 2015 Copa America title last summer in Chile, with Argentina exacting a small measure of revenge in topping the standing Copa champions. Second-half goals from Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega, with each assisting for the other, made the difference in a game that featured enthralling soccer from both teams. Chile scored a second-half stoppage time goal to make the score interesting, but it was too little too late.
"We were the fair winners today," said Argentina head coach Gerardo Martino through a translator. "Even though it was not a decisive game, it was clear that the winner would gain strength in victory. It was important for us to be strong."
The sights and sounds of the game were impressive -- maybe more so than last Friday night's tournament opener between the USA and Colombia -- and the minute-by-minute action was non-stop.
Pregame -- While not as festive outside the stadium as compared to Friday night's tournament opener, the atmosphere inside Levi's Stadium was electric. Hordes of Argentina fans, as well as roaming troops of Barcelona clad Messi fans, took over the concourses
Anthems -- The Copa organizers got it right this time, saving their blushes by playing the Chilean anthem at the appropriate time. The biggest cheers of the night so far, however, were reserved for a close-up of Lionel Messi lined up along the bench.
2' -- While the majority of fans in the seats certainly hoped to see Messi make an appearance, his replacement, Nicolas Gaitan, nearly had the first moment of magic for Argentina. After a Chile turnover in their own third, the ball was whipped to the top of the six-yard box for Gaitan, but his header skimmed off the top of the crossbar.
13' -- A thrilling opening 10 minutes -- more exciting than the vast majority of the USA vs. Colombia match three days earlier -- was punctuated by a clever kick-out by Argentina head coach Gerardo Martino on a ball out of bounds. The crowd roared its approval at Martino's skill-check.
17' -- The first shout-out for a penalty kick, as Arturo Vidal, the Bayern Munich star took what appeared to be a tumble between two Argentinean defenders in the box. Fist were flailed by Vidal, but referee Daniel Fedorczuk waved it off.
19' -- Vidal, maybe still a bit heated, earns the first yellow card of the match with a lunging tackle on Gaitan, wiping out the Benfica forward near the center line.
23' -- A quick counterattack by Argentina -- let's face it, all the counterattacks have been at high pace this match -- is nearly converted, as Gonzalo Higuain, the hairy of the soccer playing Higuain brothers, redirects a cross just wide of the post.
30' -- Some nonchalant defending by Argentina gifts the ball to Chile, and Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez almost took advantage. With only goalkeeper Sergio Romero to beat, the Gunner slammed his shot off Romero's glove.
32' -- Argentina's fans start getting vocal, maybe due to nerves, as Chile is on the ascendancy. It has not effect, as Vidal gets plowed over 30 yards from goal. Sanchez connects perfectly on the kick, but Romero makes a comfortable upper-90 save.
36' -- The first Mexican wave of the night originates in the south end-zone, and after a single revolution of Levi's Stadium, it grows to include all three decks. Argentina responds first, as Javier Mascherano nearly connects with Higuain inside the area.
39' -- The first monster moth of the evening is seen fluttering outside the pressbox windows. It won't be too much longer until the Levi's Stadium unofficial mascots take over the arena.
43' -- Chile comes close, as some outstanding play from Vidal creates room for a cross into the area. Unfortunately, a defender poked it away at the last moment, scaring the crowd into thinking it would be an own-goal, but successfully clearing the ball from danger.
44' -- First yellow card to Chile, as defender Mauricio Isla is forced to pull down Higuain 25 yards from goal. After the obligatory set-piece positioning, the free kick was directed right into the wall.
Halftime -- Both teams retreat to the bowels of Levi's Stadium for intermission, as the capacity crowd finally takes a collective breath. 45 minutes of end-to-end play has left everyone in attendance exhausted but enthralled.
"The first half was very intense," said Chile head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi through a translator. "From what I have seen in this Copa, it was the highest level so far, taking into account the players on the field."
47' -- Corner kick for Chile, and the ball is served on a platter for Gonzalo Jara, but his header at the top of the six-yard box is over the target. A good first salvo by Chile, and a wake-up call for the Argentinean set-piece defense.
51' -- Angel Di Maria with the goal for Argentina! A giveaway deep in the Chilean half is grabbed by Ever Banega, and the Sevilla midfielder drives in on goal. He spies Di Maria on his left and slots a perfect pass into his path. The low shot eludes the 'keeper at the near post, and the Albiceleste supporters leapt from their seats and screamed their approval.
Angel Di Maria scores his 17th international goal to put Argentina in front. #ARGvCHI #MyCopaColors https://t.co/pczZqGzPlJ— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 7, 2016
"We were able to put on pressure very early," said Martino. "The first goal happened in that situation of getting the ball in that formation."
57' -- So close for Chile, as substitute Fabian Orellana one-times a cross into the ground and up into the 'keeper's grasp. Orellana had come on a few minutes earlier after Eugenio Mena had to leave the game with a hamstring strain.
59' -- Another goal for Argentina! This time, it was Di Maria assisting on Banega's effort -- a nice return of favor for the two teammates -- as the midfielder's low shot took the slightest of deflections off defender Isla's foot and past Bravo to the goalkeeper's right. Again, the crowd went wild as the previous Copa America runners-up took a 2-0 lead on the current Copa champions.
Ever Banega sends a deflected shot past Claudio Bravo for his 1st career #CopaAmerica goal. #ARGvCHI #MyCopaColors https://t.co/aT8YbLaeYw— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 7, 2016
67' -- Big foot save by Bravo, as Higuain lashes an effort from an acute angle. No one was ready to poke in the rebound, however, and Chileans everywhere let out a sigh of relief.
82' -- Neither team has stepped off the gas yet, though the clock seems destined to count down to an Argentina victory. Every Chilean foray into the attacking third is missing that touch of magic to unlock the Albiceleste defense. Chile is not giving up, but the most dangerous lead in soccer looks anything but.
86' -- Almost a third goal for Argentina, as Marcos Rojo directs a header just wide of the post. Chile is pushing forward with numbers, so the chances with fall to the leaders in the waning moments of the match.
90' -- Official attendance at Levi's Stadium is 69,451 -- a sell out for the second straight Copa America Centenario match in the Bay Area. Way to represent!
90+' -- And Chile gets a deserved goal! Orellana whips in a free kick that is headed home by Jose Pedro Fuenzalida. It was a beautiful goal by the Chilean, but it proved to be the last touch of the game, as the referee blew the game dead on the restart.
For those who missed it, here's a look at Jose Fuenzalida's late consolation goal for Chile. #ARGvCHI #MyCopaColors https://t.co/EgWj6eewph— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 7, 2016
Postgame -- With Panama's 2-1 win earlier in the day against Bolivia, they and Argentina sit as co-leaders at the top of Group D. Both teams will be in action again Saturday.
"We are under pressure from the minute we wake up," said Pizzi about the pressure to perform well in the tournament. "The players already play at the highest level with their teams, and we all want to finish as champions.
"We are all trying to move ahead in this tournament," continued Pizzi, "and we know all of these games are going to be very hard."