Argentina is waiting and hoping for Barcelona icon Lionel Messi to guide country to glory

Sport360 staff 30/06/2019
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Argentina superstar Lionel Messi

For the last dozen years, Argentina has been waiting for global superstar Lionel Messi to lead their football team to a major international trophy.

But when the the country needed the five-time Ballon d’Or winner most, Messi failed to emulate the feats of Diego Maradona in 1986 – when for some he almost single-handedly won the World Cup.

Four times Messi has lined up with Argentina in a major final – the 2014 World Cup and Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 – but every time they have lost.

He has often come under criticism for failing to reproduce his Barcelona form when wearing the sky blue and white jersey of the national team.

Now, ahead of a mouth-watering Copa semi-final against hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte, Argentines are simply waiting for Messi to turn up.

“This is the match for Messi to appear,” screamed Ole newspaper’s online edition after Argentina beat Venezuela 2-0 to secure the Brazil semi-final.

Ironically, at this tournament, while Argentina’s performances have been improving steadily, Messi has, if anything, become less influential.

Argentina were all at sea in their opening 2-0 defeat to Colombia and needed a Messi penalty to salvage a 1-1 draw with Paraguay.

But in the 2-0 win over Qatar that qualified Argentina for the knock-out rounds, and the quarter-final victory over Venezuela by the same score, Messi became an increasingly peripheral figure.

‘Not at my best’

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He admitted as much after the Venezuela match, saying: “I’m not at my best level, I’m not playing how I hoped I would. I’m not having my best Copa America.”

Brazil center-back Thiago Silva is not so convinced, though.

“For me, Messi is the best player in history, the best I’ve ever seen play. It’s a privilege to play against him,” said a player who hails from the country that produced Pele, Garincha, Socrates, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.

Messi turned 32 during the tournament and while he doesn’t appear close to retirement, it cannot be too many years away.

His game has changed over the years and he no longer produces the same kind of, or quantity of, darting runs at the heart of opposition defences.

He plays deeper than he used to, passes more and is more selective with his runs.

He also rests more than he used to and took an eight-month break from the national team following the World Cup in Russia, only returning in March in a 3-1 friendly defeat to Venezuela.

But he is more than just the star of the team these days, he is the leader and captains both club and country.

During the club season, Messi took the lead in defending Philippe Coutinho, whom he will line up opposite on Tuesday, from criticism levelled at the Brazilian playmaker in the Catalan press.

Messi also defended Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde against the brickbats.

And here, while his and Argentina’s attacking performances have been nothing to enthuse about, Messi took the time to praise the team’s defensive efforts.

“Defensively we didn’t have any problems and the team was very solid at all times,” he said following the Venezuela victory, which he described as a “complete” performance.

‘Essential contribution’

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And Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni acknowledges that Messi brings much more than just brilliance on the field.

“For me he gives an essential contribution on the pitch, and if you saw everything he brings in the dressing room…” said Scaloni.

“Messi is Messi, he’s the best.”

Before the tournament began, much of the talk was about whether Messi could ever land the one thing missing from his impressive list of accolades: an international trophy.

He’s won the Champions League four times, La Liga 10 times and the Copa del Rey six times with Barcelona, but nothing major with Argentina, who haven’t won anything since 1993.

Tuesday’s semi-final in Belo Horizonte looks tailor made for the Messi of old.

Brazil have yet to concede a goal in the competition but despite victories of 5-0 over Peru and 3-0 against Bolivia, they looked ponderous and lacking imagination in the 0-0 draws against Venezuela and Paraguay.

The semi-final promises to be a tight affair, in which a moment of Messi magic could be enough to settle it.

Argentina is waiting and praying for just such a moment.

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Copa America 2019: Uruguay have themselves to blame and other talking points from quarter-final defeat to Peru

Andy West 30/06/2019
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Peru are shock Copa America semi-finalists after knocking out Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out, having somehow hung on for a goalless draw over the 90 minutes.

The victors had to ride their luck but stuck to their task with admirable commitment after conceding five in their previous game against Brazil, and have managed to propel themselves into the last four despite only winning one of their four games.

And the fact they needed a penalty shoot-out to do so was nothing new, because that is fast becoming the theme of this particular edition of Copa America…

Where did the goals go?

Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Peru and Venezuela: all of them reached the Copa America quarter-finals, but all of them failed to score. Argentina, in fact, were the only team out of eight to find the night in regulation time in a set of quarter-finals which will be remembered – if at all – for penalty shoot-out victories by Brazil, Chile and now Peru.

No doubt analysts will spend the next few days debating the reasons for the lack of goals (two in four games). Are general trends at play, or should we treat each game as an individual case?

One thing we can conclude, though, is that the standard of penalty taking has been extremely high. Of the 30 kicks taken in the three games which needed them, only five were missed: Roberto Firmino for Brazil, Gustavo Gomez and Derlis Gonzalez for Paraguay, Colombia’s William Tesillo and now Luis Suarez for Uruguay.

For the sake of entertainment, though, most fans would be much happier if that kind of deadly finishing could be employed when it really matters…during actual game time. Will the semi-finals oblige?

Uruguay shoot themselves in the foot

Uruguay could and should have had the game wrapped up long before the shoot-out was required, but they unnecessarily prolonged Peru’s hopes of springing an upset with some wayward finishing – and a bit of bad luck with the linesman’s flag.

The biggest culprit was Edinson Cavani, who was presented with a glorious close-range chance just past the midway point of the opening period, inexplicably blazing over the crossbar after a shot from Suarez was parried into his path close to goal.

Diego Godin missed a similar opportunity in the second period from a half-cleared set-piece, and Uruguay’s poor finishing was reflected in the fact that they totalled 12 shots but only three of them were on target.

There were, however, occasions that Uruguay did manage to find the back of the net – three of them, in fact – but they were all ruled out for offside: firstly De Arrascaeta in the first half, then Cavani around the hour mark, and finally Luis Suarez with 15 minutes remaining.

Still, though, Uruguay should have been good enough to overcome the modest opposition of Peru. And perhaps their biggest failing lies not with their finishing, but their mentality…

Do Uruguay really believe?

Looking at Uruguay’s squad list, it’s impossible to avoid their sheer quality. With Suarez and Cavani up front, Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez at the back and young stars Rodrigo Bentancur and Fede Valverde in midfield, the Celeste boast excellent players in all positions and an enviable blend of youthful vigour and wise experience.

The question is, though, do they really believe in themselves? For years, perhaps because of their nation’s tiny size (3.5 million population, less than a tenth of neighbouring Argentina’s), Uruguay have chosen to cast themselves as the eternally put-upon no-hopers who have to fight against the odds to achieve anything.

That very much mirrors the long-held philosophy of Atletico Madrid, and there are also similarities in playing style. Like Atletico, Uruguay play a fiercely organised 4-4-2 formation with the emphasis on defence, surrendering possession and seemingly forever scared of leaving themselves exposed at the back.

For lesser nations, that’s perfectly normal. But Uruguay showed that tentativeness even against a lowly Peru team who had been thrashed 5-0 by Brazil in their last game, appearing not to trust themselves to get on the front foot and overwhelm their opponents with their talent.

In the end, their lack of adventure counted against them. Peru were there for the taking but Uruguay couldn’t do it, and they’ve only got themselves to blame.

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Copa America 2019: Uruguay vs Peru player ratings as Luis Suarez scores a 6 while Miguel Trauco gets an 8

Andy West 30/06/2019
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Peru stunned Uruguay to advance into the Copa America semi-finals with a penalty shoot-out victory following a goalless draw in 90 minutes.

Luis Suarez was the villain for Uruguay after missing the first penalty of the shoot-out, before all Peru players netted their efforts culminating with Edison Flores for the dramatic tie-winner.

Check out the full player ratings from Salvador de Bahia.

URUGUAY

Muslera 6. Did not have a serious save to make until the shoot-out, and he could not get close to any of those.

Gonzalez 6. Linked up nicely with Nandez at times, but occasionally struggled against the threat posed by Peru down his flank.

Gimenez 8. Brilliant and indefatigable at the back, timing his challenges with ruthless precision and wholehearted commitment.

Godin 7. As ever, the skipper was always in the right place to snuff out danger, but missed a golden chance from a free-kick.

Caceres 6. Increasingly effective presence down the left as Uruguay stepped up the pressure, crossing well for Suarez’s offside goal.

Nandez 5. Provided width and penetration down the right during the early stages but faded fast and was replaced.

Valverde 7. Strong showing from the Real Madrid starlet, showing creativity and drive. Came close with a long-range free-kick.

Bentancur 6. Showed moments of class but generally operated too deep to provide much attacking support.

De Arrascaeta 6. Selected on the left of midfield and had plenty of bright moments, including a first half goal disallowed for offside.

Cavani 5. Missed an absolute sitter, had a goal disallowed and came close again a few more times but his radar was off.

Suarez 6. Came close early with a header and then a low drive, saw a goal ruled out for offside and missed his shoot-out penalty.

SUBSTITUTES

Torreira 6. Came into the centre of midfield after an hour and his calming presence gave freedom to others to get forward.

Stuani 6. Brought on for the penalty shoot-out and confidently executed his task with a firm strike into the right corner.

PERU

Gallese 7. Made a brave save at the feet of Cavani, threw himself around the goalmouth and stopped Suarez’s penalty.

Advincula 5. Posed an attacking threat with his pace but didn’t look secure defensively, with much threat down his wing.

Zambrano 8. Outstanding at the back, making a series of timely interceptions and challenges with terrific focus.

Abram 7. Showed a huge amount of heart in his tough running duel with Suarez, playing a big role in his team’s clean sheet.

Trauco 8. Perhaps the game’s most eye-catching individual, Peru’s left-back was slick on the ball and a willing worker.

Tapia 8. A tough-tackling performance in the midfield battleground, giving every effort to stop his team being overrun.

Yotun 6. Received plenty of possession in his position in front of the back four and generally used it smartly, prompting Peru’s play.

Carrillo 5. Looked to cut inside from the right to attack the penalty area, but couldn’t make much impact and was replaced.

Cueva 6. Peru’s most talented playmaker struggled to get regularly on the ball but nearly fashioned a big chance for Guerrero.

Flores 7. Made some dangerous runs down the left, showing good technical ability, and coolly converted the winning spot-kick.

Guerrero 6. Peru’s veteran skipper twice nearly broke through in the first half and ran hard throughout, belying his 35 years.

SUBSTITUTES

Gonzales 6. Replaced Carrillo on the right of attack and soon had a chance to strike, but he fired it well wide.

Ruidiaz 5. A late entrant for Cueva and helped shore up the midfield in the dying stages as Uruguay flew forward.

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