Messi guides Argentina to dominating victory over Paraguay
CONCEPCION, Chile -- Three observations from Argentina's comprehensive 6-1 victory over Paraguay in the Copa America semifinals.
1. Argentina deliver a performance for the ages
It was a perfect performance that this Argentina generation had waited a decade for, and it means they are now on the brink of ending a 22-year trophy drought.
That all may come together in glorious fashion in Saturday's Copa America final, just as Gerardo Martino's side so breathtakingly came together here. Argentina will now meet hosts Chile in Santiago's Estadio Nacional, after utterly slaughtering Paraguay 6-1.
This time, there was no comeback from Ramon Diaz's side. They just weren't allowed to get close to one. Argentina were too good, Lionel Messi was out of this world. So many others followed in fantastic fashion, from the resurgent Angel di Maria to the exquisite Javier Pastore.
This was so much more than a statement performance. It was the coming together of a team, the type of display that this squad of players seemed capable of for so long but never quite delivered. It wasn't just that they unravelled Paraguay so thoroughly throughout the game. It was that the completeness of their collective domination was itself punctuated by individual moments of magnificence, with those coming from almost every member of the team.
You only have to look at the fact that it was one of the defensive rocks in Marcos Rojo that opened the scoring with a close-range effort from a set piece, but it was of course Messi who sent over the perfect cross. He linked everything together throughout, becoming commander as much as creator. Minutes later, the number 10 was feeding Pastore for a wonderfully sleek second goal.
Lucas Barrios' goal just before halftime temporarily prompted thoughts of another Paraguay comeback, only for Argentina to emerge for the second half at a much higher level, and move up many gears.
They superseded the brilliant first half display of the Colombia game, but also added all the goals that had seemed so freakishly beyond them in so many narrow missed chances in this tournament so far. Di Maria got his first of two goals from an exquisite outside-of-the-foot pass from Pastore, before claiming his second from an even better Messi run. Sergio Aguero then headed in his third goal of the Copa, and substitute Gonzalo Higuain powered in a sixth.
It was a lead befitting the lusciousness of their performance. Even better, Argentina didn't suffer the booking that could have kept one of Messi, Aguero or Javier Mascherano out of the final. That in itself is frightening. There may be more of this.
The one worry is whether they have peaked too soon but, as Argentina now know all too well, that was not an issue for Germany after they defeated Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup semifinal to then beat Messi and Co. in the showpiece.
Martino's side can now go some way to rectifying that misery. If they reach anything like this level, Chile won't be able to get near them. Here, Argentina played like a weight was lifted. A wait might be ended too.
2. Messi takes command
Messi still hasn't scored in open play this tournament, but that almost feels a minor detail after a performance of maximum quality. This semifinal finally felt like the night that Messi fully took command of this Copa America. He bossed this match against Paraguay, offering three assists, setting up another two goals and generally running the game.
Merely describing those facts, however, doesn't do justice to the joy of what he actually offered here. Words, as Messi's former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola so often had to say, are now pretty much redundant when it comes to Messi.
The 52nd-minute run that made Argentina's third goal a certainty really needs to be witnessed to properly appreciate its full wonder. In that moment, a pass had been coming to a Paraguay player just inside his own half, only for Messi to dart in like a shark and claim a ball he had no right to get.
The number-10 surged forward, only to face two defenders, one on each side. It didn't matter. Across the breadth of one movement, Messi rode the challenge from behind by hopping up like Diego Maradona so often used to, only to then combine that with a nutmeg to so embarrass the second defender. Both were left in a heap on the ground, and Messi continued to soar. Sergio Aguero couldn't finish the chance but Di Maria hit the follow-up.
It felt almost too crude a way to complete a move of such brilliance. This is the thing with Messi, and how his tournament may end up being analysed. This was a run of such astounding quality that, if any other player on the planet had offered it, it would have gone down as a defining career moment. For him, it was rather routine, something we've come to expect, so we always expect more -- we expect him to explode, to smash goalscoring records.
He had already smashed this game apart in his own way. The cross from a set piece for the key first goal was whipped in with such vigor as to make it almost impossible to defend. The pass for Pastore for Argentina's second goal, then, was just as devastating in a different way as he synchronised so supremely with his attacking-midfield partner.
It's now time for Messi to do the only thing he has yet to really achieve in his career: win an international trophy. He has again given his team the best possible chance of doing so.
3. Paraguay resilience finally falters
After a defeat that ultimately felt so inevitable, there was still a slight degree of irony to Paraguay's destruction here.
This time, for about 14 minutes, they actually started a game the better team. They certainly had the best chance, as an attack fell to a completely free Roque Santa Cruz around the edge of the box. He then proceeded to show why he has such a poor scoring ratio in Europe, though, as he badly skewed the ball wide.
It wasn't too long until everything else about Paraguay's performance was skewed too. First of all, after 15 minutes, the team that had won more aerial duels than any other in the tournament conceded from a set piece, as Messi's brilliantly struck free kick went over the heads of their defence and to the feet of Rojo.
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Just minutes later, their most creative player was removed as the inventive Derlis Gonzalez was forced off with an injury. They didn't just lose their best crosser and one of the few sources of subtle play on the ground -- as well as a crucial weapon in terms of how he can switch the play -- but Paraguay also lost more ground. In the moments after Gonzalez went off, Pastore fired in Argentina's second, and Paraguay soon had a second man taken off as Santa Cruz also suffered an injury.
Insult would be added, as Argentina finally unloaded on a team, but not before some of Paraguay's resilience kicked in. Substitute Barrios was allowed break free to drive the ball past Sergio Romero, and Paraguay were allowed back in the game -- temporarily.
This time, they had too much to overcome. It wasn't just the scoreline, but the injuries, and the intense quality of the Argentines. It was as if all of those unlikely comebacks evened out. Paraguay were flattened.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.