Wednesday July 1st, 2015

CONCEPCIÓN, Chile – There was no goal for Lionel Messi, but there was everything else in Argentina's 6-1 win over Paraguay in the Copa America semifinal on Tuesday.

Messi orchestrated an Argentina performance that at last reached the attacking heights if which it should be capable, setting up five of the six goals and generally playing with a playful menace. Marcos Rojo put Argentina ahead after 15 minutes and when Javier Pastore added a second 12 minutes later, the game already seemed over. 

But defensive laxity allowed Paraguay back onto it through Lucas Barrios just before half-time, before Argentina regrouped and sealed the game with two Angel Di Maria goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain added further goals in the final 10 minutes. 

Here are three thoughts on the match, which sent Messi & Co. to Saturday's final vs. host Chile:

Messi's brilliant without scoring

It’s fair to say Messi’s goal drought with Argentina—918 minutes without scoring from open play by the final whistle—was beginning to play on his mind.

“When I saw that he’d got up to make the save, I wanted to die,” he said of David Ospina’s brilliant block to keep out his header after he followed in an initial Sergio Aguero effort in the first half of the quarter-final against Colombia. After scoring 58 goals in 57 games for Barcelona last season, it seems mystifying that he should find it so difficult to get the ball over the line at international level. “It’s incredible how difficult it is to score a goal for the national team,” he said after that Colombia game. 

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Sergio Agüero had told Messi to be patient, that the goals would come. It’s not, after all, as though he had done much wrong. Before the semifinal, Messi put 4 of his 5.5 shots per game on target. With the header that Ospina saved, he was denied by a freakishly good piece of goalkeeping. And Messi is about far more than goals anyway. 

He played almost as a playmaker here, largely eschewing the dribble in the first half to pick Paraguay apart with a series of rapier passes. It was his free kick that produced the opening goal for Marcos Rojo, his pass that led to the chance Javier Pastore wasted after 21 minutes and his pass that led to Pastore’s delightful second after 27 minutes. 

In the second half, though, all the tricks were out. His run in the build-up to the fourth goal was sensational: incredible pace to get the ball and a hop that recalled Diego Maradona to escape the challenge, then a shimmy and nutmeg to leave two Paraguayan defenders stacked on top of each other. All that prevented it being a goal for the ages was Pastore’s weak finish that was saved but fell for Di Maria to knock in.

Messi then laid in Di Maria to cross for Agüero to head the fifth, before he forced the ball through to Higuain to lash in No. 6 having lost his footing at the edge of the box. Even on the ground, he’s lethal. 

Argentina's defense remains vulnerable

After conceding two to Paraguay in the opening group game, it seemed Gerardo Martino had resolved many of the defensive issues that had undermined his team in that game. It may simply be, though, that Argentina didn’t play a side that really tested it (and even then it wobbled in the final minutes against both Uruguay and Jamaica).

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As soon as Paraguay applied pressure, Argentina looked shaky. The goal that Lucas Barrios scored just before halftime, running on to a header from Bruno Valdez, was farcical, the two center backs split, half the side pushed up, half back–as it had been for the goal Nelson Haedo scored in the group game. This remains a vulnerable side: Chile could prosper; even at 4-1, Argentina was not entirely comfortable.

Argentina escapes debilitating yellows

Events of the past week have brought the match officials under even greater scrutiny than usual, with a perception from elsewhere in South America that Chile has had the benefit of some of the refereeing, having had three players sent off against it and been awarded two penalties, one of them dubious.

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Sandro Ricci, the Brazilian who refereed at the 2014 World Cup, had had a largely unexceptional game when Argentina played Uruguay in the group stage, but he was the man at the center of the controversy in the first quarterfinal, when he sent off Edinson Cavani for reacting after he was prodded in the backside by Gonzalo Jara, who escaped sanction. He then sent off Jorge Fucile for the second of two highly debatable yellow cards.

The conspiracy theory said that, having been booked in the quarterfinal, Javier Mascherano, Aguero, Messi were all targets to receive yellow cards to keep them out of the final through suspension. 

As Ricci flashed three yellow cards in the first 15 minutes, two to Argentinians (Marcos Rojo for a cynical foul and Lucas Biglia for dissent), it looked as though Chile may essentially be playing a second string side in the final. But once Argentina had gone ahead the sting went out of the game and the Albiceleste will have a full squad to choose from–injury and illness permitting–for the final. 

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