Lionel Messi scored a free kick and served up two assists as Argentina beat Ecuador 3-0 on Saturday to set themselves up for a Copa América semi-final against Colombia.
Messi missed a golden chance in the first half but set up Rodrigo De Paul five minutes before half-time and then did the same for Lautaro Martinez five minutes from the end to give Argentina a deserved victory. The Barcelona player then got his second free-kick of the tournament in stoppage time to round out a scoreline that was more convincing than the performance.
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It was his 76th goal for Argentina, taking him to within one of Pele’s South American record. “I’ve always said that individual prizes are secondary, we’re here for something else,” Messi said. “We have an objective and we’re focused on that.
“It was a hard match, we know how difficult an opponent they can be. The important thing is we’ve taken another step forward.”
Argentina were unbeaten in 17 games coming into the match and they should have put the result beyond doubt earlier than they did. Martinez and German Pezzella both came close in the opening 20 minutes and Hernan Galindez made one superb double save from Nicolas Gonzalez with the score at 1-0. More surprisingly, Messi missed the best chance of the game when he was through one-on-one but saw his shot come back off the post.
However, the diminutive striker made up for it five minutes before half-time when, with the Ecuadoran goalkeeper stranded after making a tackle outside the box, he fed De Paul, who stroked the ball into the net for his first international goal in 25 appearances. Messi then set up Martinez to finish clinically five minutes from the end, before stepping up himself to curl home a free kick in stoppage time, after Piero Hincapie hauled down Angel Di Maria and was shown a red card.
Underdogs Ecuador came into the match without a win in their last six games but they had chances to score against a team seeking their first Copa America triumph since 1993. Enner Valencia in particular will be angry at himself for sending two glancing headers wide from close in during the first 45 minutes.
The result means Argentina will face Colombia, who overcame Uruguay on penalties earlier in the day, in the second Copa América semi-final on Tuesday. Brazil play Peru in the first semi 24 hours before.
Goalkeeper David Ospina was Colombia’s hero, celebrating becoming his country’s most capped player by saving two penalties in a shootout to overcome Uruguay. Ospina made a record 112th appearance on Saturday, going on to save spot kicks from Jose Maria Gimenez and Matias Vina.
“We knew David would be decisive and that we had to score to stay in the tournament,” said Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda. “David has always been a leader. He’s very cerebral when it comes to penalties. That’s a big help to our team.”
Uruguay began this tournament in the middle of a goal drought and although they scored twice against Bolivia and once against Paraguay in their last two group games they still looked uncomfortable up front, with service to Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani sparse and neither striker firing on all cylinders. Colombia, too, looked like they missed suspended midfield general Juan Cuadrado and neither side showed much composure in a game that was characterised by stray passes and painfully slow transitions from the back.
Both sides could only muster one shot on target between them in the first half but things changed after the break as both teams started to lose their inhibitions and come forward. However, neither could find the breakthrough and after ending nil-nil the match went straight to penalties.
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“I didn’t think Colombia were much better than us,” said Uruguayan coach Oscar Tabarez. “We each had our moments.
“Maybe we lacked a bit more forcefulness when we had the ball. But in terms of commitment, there’s nothing I can criticise, I can only lament that we’re not going further.”
Uruguay’s defeat was reminiscent of the last Copa America, when they were also eliminated at the quarter-final stage on penalties, by Peru. This time their problem was scoring goals – they managed just four in five matches – something that Tabarez acknowledged he had to fix. “You get points for scoring goals and not conceding them,” he said. “It’s something we have to improve.”