Di Maria, Banega strike for Messi-less Argentina

Angel Di Maria scored in the 51st minute off a pass from Ever Banega, then later assisted on Banega’s goal, as top-ranked Argentina looked just fine without injured captain Lionel Messi in beating Chile 2-1

Argentina’s Angel Di Maria holds a t-shirt that reads "Grandmother, I will miss you a lot" after he scored the first goal against Chile as Ever Banega looks on.   -  AP

LionelMessi-cropped

Nursing a back injury, captain Messi was named among the substitutes for Monday's blockbuster Group D clash in Santa Clara, a rematch of last year's Copa America final.

Argentina shrugged off the injury absence of Lionel Messi to launch its Copa America Centenario campaign with a 2-1 defeat of defending champion Chile here on Monday.

Goals from Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega secured a deserved three points for Argentina, which exacted sweet revenge for its defeat to the Chileans in last year's Copa America final. Chile substitute Jose Fuenzalida scored an injury time consolation for the holders.

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The Argentines will now be firm favorites to progress to the quarterfinals 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.

READ: >Di Maria pays tribute to grandmother

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.

Ugly challenge

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 its victorious Copa America side, gradually grew into the game.

But it was Argentina which continued to look the more threatening and it 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 set piece, 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 which 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.

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