Lionel Messi made it four goals and four assists at this year’s Copa América as Argentina saw off Ecuador in a quarter-final tie that was more uncomfortable than the scoreline suggests.
Lionel Scaloni made eight changes to the side that wrapped up the group phase with a routine win over Bolivia and while Argentina carried the same threat from the outset missed chances allowed Ecuador to remain dangerous for long periods.
Messi himself was guilty of Argentina’s biggest miss during the first half when played through on goal by Ecuadorian midfielder Carlos Gruezo’s ill-judged back pass. The Argentina number ten looked certain to break the deadlock only for the inside of the post to deny he and the Albiceleste the lead.
Ecuador had gone close themselves with Enner Valencia flashing a header across the face of goal only inches away from Angel Mena’s boot at the back post and Jhegson Méndez forcing Emiliano Martínez into a smart stop.
However, Argentina found their breakthrough shortly before the break. Messi releasing Nicolás González, who was again wasteful in front of goal, Hernán Galíndez tearing out of goal to deny him but Messi picking up the loose ball to deliver another inch-perfect pass for Rodrigo De Paul to slot in.
While only one-nil Ecuador were a threat and had come close on a couple of occasions of finding an equaliser until Angel Di María and Messi pressured talented young defender Piero Hincapié into a mistake, nicked possession and Messi fed Lautaro Martínez for the second.
It got worse for Hincapié before the end with the Talleres defender pulling down Di María as the substitute sprinted in behind the Ecuador defence. Referee Wilton Sampaio’s initial verdict of a penalty was overturned by VAR with Hincapié then sent off and from the subsequent free-kick Messi produced some magic again. A swift swing of his magical left boot rifled the ball past Galíndez and wrapped up victory for Argentina.
It was Messi’s 76th goal for Argentina, taking him to within one of Pelé’s South American record. “I’ve always said that individual prizes are secondary, we’re here for something else. We have an objective and we’re focused on that,” Messi told reporters at full time.
“It was a hard match. We know how difficult an opponent they can be. The important thing is we’ve taken another step forward.”
A step forward to the semi finals where Colombia lie in wait after their penalty win over Uruguay. Argentina have two substantial hurdles still ahead if they are to lift the title for the first time since 1993 but Messi has rarely looked so relaxed in an Argentina shirt.