Lionel Messi Dazzles as Argentina Advances to Face United States

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Argentina came to the United States this summer in pursuit of its first major soccer championship in 23 years. Now, the United States stands in the way.

After beating Venezuela, 4-1, in a quarterfinal matchup of the Copa América at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, La Albiceleste, as the Argentine team is known, will travel to Houston to play the United States in an eagerly awaited semifinal on Tuesday night.

But first the Argentines had to handle their chores at Gillette Stadium, where an announced crowd of 59,183 watched them dominate in a manner that many expected.

Gonzalo Higuaín scored two goals in the first half for Argentina. The initial one was set up brilliantly by Lionel Messi, the supremely talented forward who poses the biggest of many challenges for the United States. Messi added another goal in the 60th minute and then set up Erik Lamela for the fourth goal in the 71st minute as Argentina beat Venezuela for the 20th time in 21 matches.

Messi’s goal was his 54th in international play, tying him with Gabriel Batistuta for the national record. He also leads the tournament with four goals.

Venezuela did have chances to score, including a botched penalty kick by Luis Manuel Seijas in the first half. But the way Argentina has played, and with Messi recovered from a back injury, it would take great teamwork and, perhaps, a lot of luck for any team to knock Argentina out of the tournament.

“It is a very complicated team for us,” Lamela said of the United States. “They are playing in their own house. It will be a complicated match.”

But the same can be said about Argentina, a team with several attacking options in addition to Messi, whom many call the best player in the world.

After Saturday’s game, Higuaín was announced as the man of the match to mild cheering. But two seconds later the public address announcer said, “Correction, the man of the match is No. 10, Lionel Messi,” and the fans roared their approval.

Many of those supporters paint Argentina as the best team in the world, and FIFA backs that up with a No. 1 ranking. But the team wants the requisite trophy to prove it.

“We came here with one goal,” Gerardo Martino, the Argentine coach, said through an interpreter. “We still have a chance to achieve that.”

Indeed, Argentina came to the tournament on a singular mission after two disappointing runner-up finishes the last two summers. The Argentines fell in the final of the 2014 World Cup to Germany, and they lost the 2015 Copa América to Chile, the host.

But this summer, Argentina’s path to a title has clicked into sharp focus, especially with Brazil and Uruguay already eliminated.

For the United States — which beat Ecuador, 2-1, in its quarterfinal match on Thursday — the match against Argentina will be its biggest game since a loss to Belgium in the round of 16 of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It will also be, perhaps, the biggest game the United States has contested on American soil since it lost to Brazil at the same stage in the 1994 World Cup.

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The Americans do have an impressive win over Argentina on their résumé in this very tournament, though. In the 1995 Copa América in Uruguay, the United States beat Argentina, 3-0.

But there was no Messi on the field that day.

Playing in the same town (not the same stadium) where Diego Maradona scored his final goal for Argentina in the ’94 World Cup, Messi put on the show so many had come to see.

His back had been injured in a tuneup against Honduras, and he had been used off the bench during the tournament before Saturday. But as usual, when he is on the field, he is unparalleled. He demonstrated his gifts as soon as the eighth minute.

As he drifted wide to the right in plenty of space, Messi lofted a gorgeous, looping pass to Higuaín, who was cutting back from the left. Higuaín beat goalkeeper Dani Hernández with a one-touch half-volley into the far corner, and the rout was on.

Twenty minutes later, Higuaín took advantage of a terrible mixup by the Venezuelan defenders, scooted through and scored a nearly uncontested goal.

Then, just before halftime, Venezuela was awarded a penalty kick that could have changed the course of the game. But on the bus ride to the stadium, Argentina’s goalie coach Gustavo Piñero had shown Romero highlights of the Venezuelans taking penalty kicks, including one of Seijas chipping the ball down the middle after the goalie had dived to one side.

Sure enough, Seijas tried it again, but Romero stood his ground and Seijas chipped it directly to him.

“It was not a coincidence,” Martino said.

Nor was it a coincidence that Argentina won so convincingly. It is one of the best teams in the world, after all, with every intention of showing that to the United States on Tuesday.

Source: nytimes

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