The eyes of the world are focusing on talents elsewhere in Argentina’s squad following their impressive 2-0 win over Venezuela in the Copa America quarter-finals, but Brazil defender Thiago Alves insists Lionel Messi is the one to watch.
The South American giants meet for a place in the Copa final on Monday with Messi arriving at the mouth-watering contest with just one goal, via the penalty spot, in the tournament so far.
But veteran Selecao centre-back Silva says he won’t let the Argentina captain out of his sight during their semi-final meeting.
“He is the best player in the world and he still could spring to life,” Silva told reporters ahead of the first Copa contest between the sides since the 2007 final, which Brazil won 3-0.
“We will have to be especially focused on him when we have the ball and when we don’t. Sometimes he can be at walking pace during a game but he’s always looking for space to launch a counterattack.
“It’s a privilege to be able to face him again and we’ll have to try and put the brakes on him.”
Messi has himself acknowledged he’s yet to hit his best levels in Brazil, although that hasn’t been to the detriment of La Albiceleste who appeared a more cohesive unit in the win over Venezuela.
“The truth is I’m not having my best Copa America, it’s always very difficult for us because we want to do something different and attack and teams pack out the middle of the pitch,” he said after his country’s quarter-final success.
“No one is giving anything away cheaply in this Copa, it’s very difficult to play because the pitches are very bad, it’s shameful. The ball is like a rabbit, it can go anywhere and you can’t dribble.”
Argentina winger Angel Di Maria is adamant that despite his low output in terms of goals and assists, Messi remains pivotal.
“We are used to seeing him score goals but Leo is doing very well, he is running a lot, he is working hard,” he said.
“He knows more than anyone that at this Copa America the first thing you need to do is run, then you can think about the rest, playing well and scoring.”
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’
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.
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.
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.