In a hard-fought night of football, Argentina beat 10-man Ecuador 3-0 to qualify for the semi-finals of the 2021 Copa America.
The scoreline seemed comfortable but the game wasn’t. Argentina really have one man to thank for their fourth consecutive Copa America semi-final: the incomparable Leo Messi.
Well, kind of.
In many ways Argentina are now more of a functioning team than they have been in over half a decade when Messi and Mascherano led them to three finals in three years (only to lose them all). There’s young blood coming through in attack with Lautaro Martinez and Nicolas Gonzalez, while Rodrigo de Paul, Giovani Lo Celso and Leandro Paredes are a modern, fully functioning midfield trio – with Guido Rodriguez as the muscle option off the bench should they need one.
Marcos Acuna has solved their long-standing left-back issue and while right-back is still a mess, centre-back has viable solutions (Christian Romero, for one) it needs only Leonel Scaloni to select them. Meanwhile Emi Martinez is the stud goalkeeper Argentina haven’t had for decades, if ever. Then Messi’s fellow veterans Angel Di Maria, Papu Gomez and Sergio Aguero have proven themselves capable of useful cameos as we saw tonight when Di Maria came off the bench and helped accelerate Argentina from 1-0 to 3-0.
But as much as Argentina have more talent than they’ve had in ages, even if there are still massive weaknesses there to be exposed in three of the four defensive spots, all of it still revolves around Messi. He is still the heartbeat of the team and its divine, driving force.
Today he was directly involved in every Argentine goal as he scored once and notched two assists against Ecuador.
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Watching Messi conserve energy by walking around the pitch only to explode to life in possession remains one of the most awe-inspiring things in the game. He may not be able to win those long sprints anymore but he can still go 0-60 faster than any car man could design and do it all with the ball velcro’d to his foot.
His first assist was basically two in one. To begin he pinged a first-time pass through to Nico Gonzalez putting him 1v1 but the winger’s hesitation saw the excellent Ecuadorian goalie Hernan Galindez close him down and knock the ball away, though unluckily for him it fell for Messi and the no. 10 struck a sublime first-time pass across the penalty area evading every defender and giving Rodrigo de Paul a tap-in with an open goal. Seemed easy, definitely wasn’t. 1-0 Argentina.
His second assist was more low key as late on he and Angel Di Maria pressed and won the ball back from Piero Hincapie, then Messi laid a perfectly weighted pass off to the side for Lautaro Martinez to emerge and smash home.
His goal came in the match’s dying embers as Angel Di Maria won what first appeared to be a penalty but then was changed by VAR to a free-kick. It made no difference to Messi who stepped up and launched a missile into the back of the net, bewitching poor Galindez by going goalie’s side with such pace and ferocity the Ecuadorian couldn’t adjust and stop it. His second free-kick of the Copa America (and bear in mind with all of Europe’s top stars out in force there hasn’t been a single direct free-kick scored at the Euros).
¡Ankara, G⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽L, Ankara! pic.twitter.com/OUvcXHeWuS
— Selección Argentina 🇦🇷 (@Argentina) July 4, 2021
That was his fourth goal of the tournament, making him top scorer. The assists were his 3rd and 4th of the tournament, making him top playmaker as well. That’s a total of 8 goals and assists in 5 games played for Argentina, who have only scored two goals at the Copa without Messi’s direct involvement and he was heavily involved in the build-up play for both of those goals anyway.
All in all for Barcelona and Argentina he’s played 58 times since the start of the season. Even more impressive is that he’s only been subbed off three times and missed just seven games for Barcelona, none for Argentina, and has played approximately 5,182 minutes.
For a man who just turned 34 to be so omnipresent is incredible enough. For him to ally that omnipresence with a seeming omnipotence is another thing entirely. His goals and assists numbers for this season are particularly outrageous when you consider how hit-and-miss he was for the first few months of 2020/21. Since the turn of the year he has been imperious, with more goals & assists combined (46 – 33 goals and 13 assists) than any of his rivals from the major European leagues (Robert Lewandowski is closest with 38).
Lionel Messi on Argentina win: "Individual awards are secondary, we are here for something else". https://t.co/plqRup5tE0
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) July 4, 2021
This outrageous summer has surely put Messi in pole position to win the Ballon d’Or come the end of the year. His two major rivals (N’Golo Kanté and Robert Lewandowski) both had underwhelming Euros, while Messi has been the best player so far at the Copa America. Should he perform well in the next two games then he would surely claim his seventh Ballon d’Or.
Not that it would matter to Messi. No, for him the real prize would be having finally won a senior trophy with Argentina and ending the historic nation’s brutal 28-year trophy drought. After so many previous near misses, especially in the Copa, you would forgive Messi for being riddled with nerves and worrying about how it could go wrong this time; but instead the no. 10 is serenely gliding around the pitch, breaking records, performing absolute miracles and carrying his nation forward unto glory.