RIO DE JANEIRO: Argentina’s Lionel Messi was sent off for the second time in his career – 14 years after his first – during their Copa America third-fourth play-off victory over Chile.
The Barcelona legend’s hopes of winning a first major trophy with his country were ended by Brazil in the semi-finals but he suffered a new low by controversially seeing red in the first half against Chile after an altercation with Gary Medal, who was also given his marching orders.
Goals from Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala had put Argentina 2-0 by the time Messi clashed with the former Cardiff midfielder and although Chile pulled one back when Arturo Vidal slotted home a penalty with 30 minutes remaining, they held on for the consolation victory.
Messi, though, appeared to have been hard done by, with Chile defender Medel appearing to push his head towards the Argentina playmaker as they squared up, chest to chest.
The only other time Messi has been sent off came on his Argentina debut back in 2005. Since then he has scored 68 goals in 135 games and finished runner-up in one World Cup and three Copa Americas.
Chile – whose semi-final defeat by Peru ended hopes of a third straight Copa America title – saw Manchester United forward Alexis Sanchez forced off with a suspected hamstring problem before Dybala made it 2-0 after 22 minutes
After Messi and Medel were dismissed by Paraguay referee Mario De Vivar, who had consulted a video replay of the incident, Arturo Vidal’s penalty pulled a goal back from Chile on the hour, with the VAR again called into action.
Messi had made an early impact when his quick ball forwards from a free-kick just inside his own half put Aguero racing clear and the Manchester City striker went around the goalkeeper and opened the scoring in the 13th minute.
Chile were then forced into a change when Sanchez limped off and Junior Fernandes came on.
Argentina doubled their lead in the 22nd minute. Juventus forward Dybala was played into the left side of the Chile penalty area and clipped an angled shot into the far corner.
Dybala sent another volley just wide before tempers boiled over as half-time approached when Medel and Messi squared up after chasing a ball going out on the touchline.
Argentina remained a threat on the counter at the start of the second half, but Chile were given a way back into the match.
Play was called back as the referee looked at a potential foul by Argentina’s Giovani Lo Celso on Charles Aranguiz on the edge of the penalty area and eventually pointed to the spot.
Despite the delay, Barcelona midfielder Vidal remained calm, drilling the penalty straight down the middle as Argentina goalkeeper Franco Armani dived away.
Fernandes and fellow substitute Diego Vargas both tested Armani before Argentina slowly regained control, with Aguero having a couple of late chances to score again.
In stoppage time, the Chile bench were all up claiming for handball, but this time there was no extensive VAR review as the appeals were swiftly waved away.
Tournament hosts Brazil will start as hot favourites to defeat Peru in Sunday’s final.