Lionel Messi inspires Argentina vs. Paraguay and into Copa America final
CONCEPCION, Chile -- Lionel Messi has not scored from open play for Argentina in a competitive game in more than a year. That's 945 minutes, since his second goal against Nigeria back in the final group game of the World Cup.
What's more, if you include friendlies but discount the two goals he scored in a 7-0 pummeling of Hong Kong -- ranked 164 by FIFA -- in October of last year, then the streak is even longer, surpassing 1,200 minutes. That's more than 13 games, more than a third of a club season.
That kind of barren streak ought to be an issue for any striker, let alone a guy with a collection of Ballons d'Or who has averaged more than a goal a game for Barcelona for the past seven years.
But does Messi care? Does his boss Tata Martino care? Do Argentina fans, from Ushuaia to Iguazu, care?
Not at all. Not when he turns in the kind of performance we witnessed during the Albiceleste's 6-1 Copa America semifinal dismantling of Paraguay. Messi assisted on three goals and was involved in the other three. That's what history will record. But, in fact, his impact was much greater than that.
"A guy like Leo ... well, not a guy like Leo, but Leo alone, because he's one of a kind, he knows how to do what is necessary based on the game and what the game needs," said Martino after the game. "He doesn't need to score to be happy. He's not concerned by his lack of goals."
For old-school basketball fans, it sort of reminded you of how Wilt Chamberlain, after leading the league in scoring year after year, decided one season that he would focus on passing and lead it in assists instead.
Just because, you know, he could.
The score suggests it was a walkover with Argentina dominating a far inferior Paraguay, but in fact this game was trickier than it looked for Martino's side. The ingredients for an upset -- fueled by the kind of implosion we've seen before from Argentina -- were there on a frigid night.
As predicted, there were far more Argentines than Paraguayans in the crowd, but there were even more Chileans. And there was no doubt whom they wanted to see La Roja play in the final. (It wasn't Messi and co.)
Ezequiel Garay was unavailable for Argentina, which meant that Martin Demichelis, at 34, lined up alongside Nicolas Otamendi, breaking up what had been one of the better partnerships of the Copa America.
Then there was the elephant in the room: Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci. He was the man who took charge of the Chile vs. Uruguay quarterfinal and sent off Edinson Cavani. In a tournament marked by conspiracy theories and accusations of "home cooking" this was definitely an issue and nobody needed to be reminded that Messi, Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano were one booking away from missing the final against Chile.
And when Ricci flashed two yellow cards to two Argentine players in the space of a minute inside the first 15 minutes, there were murmurs. The cautions didn't go to Messi or Aguero or Mascherano, but the rather more replaceable Marcos Rojo and Lucas Biglia. Yet still the question hung in the air: was Ricci going to be that referee?
Ultimately, no, he wasn't. Two minutes after the second card, Rojo himself steadied Argentine nerves, bringing down Messi's exquisitely flighted free kick before beating Justo Villar (on his 38th birthday, no less.)
Paraguay soon suffered another setback as Derlis Gonzalez, the exciting, young wide man who scored vs. Brazil, got hurt and was replaced by Raul Bobadilla. Barely 60 seconds later, Argentina were two up. Pablo Zabaleta found Messi, who conjured up an inch-perfect through ball for Javier Pastore. El Flaco collected it with composure and buried it with elegance, but, again, it was Messi who made it happen.
Bad news was coming in twos for Paraguay: After the second goal, a second injury to one of Ramon Diaz's key ingredients meant Roque Santa Cruz limped off and on came Lucas Barrios.
Argentina kept creating but, just before the half, Pastore was beaten to a header, the ball fell to Barrios and Paraguay clawed one back. There were shades of the group game, when Paraguay stormed back to draw after being 2-0 down, a comeback that was led by none other than Barrios.
Fear? What fear? Not with Messi in this sort of form.
Less than two minutes after the restart, it was 3-1 as Biglia and Messi combined to set up Pastore, who pushed it over for Di Maria to score.
In the 52nd minute, Messi went ethereal. He streaked past Victor Caceres and danced around Pablo Aguilar. Then, with Paulo Da Silva's large frame bearing down on him he somehow managed to poke the ball under him and re-emerged on the other side, just in time to dish a perfect pass for Pastore. His finish was deflected by Villar, but Di Maria was there to knock the ball home.
You know that thing Cristiano Ronaldo does after scoring? "Calma, eu estou aqui!" -- "Relax, I'm here." Messi might as well have done just that after creating the two goals that made it 3-1 and 4-1.
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The fifth and sixth belonged to Aguero and the man who replaced him, Gonzalo Higuain, but still Messi -- and the threat of Messi -- played a part in both. CONMEBOL named him Man of the Match, just as they've done in four of the five games this tournament.
And how could they not? Messi had run the midfield and dictated the play the way his old club teammate Xavi did in his pomp. With Barcelona, we've grown accustomed to Messi's usual shtick, lining up wide right and then cutting inside, running at defenders and either shooting or laying it off. It's as familiar as the old John Stockton-Karl Malone pick-and-roll was to NBA fans. You know what's coming, you just can't defend it.
This was different. Here, it was Messi floating inside and back, often behind Pastore, and spreading play from there. Against Colombia he did it with those blistering accelerations, the cartoonish power-ups that usually leave defenders with two options: foul or look foolish.
On Tuesday, it was "pass first," both the kind delivered into space, where the teammate doesn't even need to break stride or, with the help of Biglia and Pastore, the type that gives rise to an intricate web designed to pull opponents out of position.
It's another weapon in Messi's arsenal, a Plan B to which to turn. And it was also -- perhaps unwittingly -- a response to some of the critics. Despite all their big names up front, Argentina had managed just four goals in four games before this game. Never mind the fact that, by some margin, they had created more chances than any other team.
You might have thought that Messi's response would be to try even harder to score, to force things, to demand his place on the score sheet. Nope, nothing like that. He was more than happy to turn provider. Not because of some sense of altruism but simply because -- as Martino said -- it was the best way to win.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.