Argentina reaches the Copa America final, giving Messi another chance at glory.

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The pressure was almost too much for Argentina’s seasoned players, who have painful memories of penalty shootouts in the 2015 and 2016 Copa America championships.

But Argentina’s new first-choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez responded to the pressure, making three saves, and beating Colombia on penalties to advance to Saturday’s final following a 1-1 draw.

The game was always engrossing, albeit occasionally tense, but it will satisfy Lionel Messi supporters as well as those expecting for a Maracana confrontation between Brazil and Argentina.

If Colombia had won the shootout, the game would have ended in a draw, and Argentina would have maintained their two-year unbeaten streak. But it would have been scant comfort to Messi and his teammates, who were looking for their first senior trophy with Argentina and hoping to put an end to a 28-year drought. They haven’t won a major trophy since the Copa America in 1993.

Coach Lionel Scaloni’s first competitive game in charge was likewise against Colombia, which he lost 2-0 in the 2019 Copa America opener. His early idea of play died quickly as a result of it. Scaloni envisioned a team that could adapt quickly, like the world winners France. However, he ended up with a side that was spread out all over the field and was picked apart by the Colombians. It was a style of play that didn’t make sense in a team with an aging Messi. Scaloni’s team has steadily improved since that low point, moving closer to an idea that was evident in the first few minutes of this match in Brasilia.

Messi, 34, is currently tucked away in a passing circle with midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso, and is forming a bond with center-forward Lautaro Martinez. He had previously come close to setting up Martinez for a goal when another opportunity presented itself. Messi moved inside and laid back for Martinez to swish inside the far corner after Lo Celso snuck a ball into the right channel of the penalty area. Argentina’s 11th goal of the tournament, and Messi has been involved in every single one of them.

Argentina has made a strong start in every game of the tournament. And they’ve struggled to keep it up each time. Colombia, in a physical and straightforward manner, fought their way back into contention, revealing the same dynamic.

The teams met in a World Cup qualifier in Colombia shortly before the Copa. Argentina took a two-goal advantage early on. Colombia poured up the pressure and eventually equalized with the game’s final assault. Emiliano Martinez, who was playing only his second match for his country, was carried off before halftime following a horrific collision with gigantic centre-back Yerry Mina. On Tuesday, he was knocked out again by a collision with attacker Duvan Zapata, who was in fine form. Fortunately for Argentina, he was fit to play this time, albeit he couldn’t stop Colombia’s equalizer on the hour.

At halftime, coach Reinaldo Rueda had totally changed his lineup, making three substitutes and switching formations. Instead of a 4-4-2, he now has his players lined up in a far more daring 4-3-3, with attacking full-backs, plenty of pace and breadth, and playmaker Edwin Cardona to provide some much-needed nuance. Cardona split the defense from deep with a ball that allowed great left winger Luis Diaz to overtake German Pezzella and open up his body, allowing him to skip in a right footed shot inside the far post.

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Di Maria was a dynamic presence right away. He grabbed a stray Colombia pass to pull the keeper and set up Lautaro Martinez, but Wilmar Barrios came back to clear the ball off the line. Then Di Maria slipped Messi on the penalty area’s left side. Messi turned and shot, beating David Ospina, but the ball rebounded to safety off the inside of the near post. Was there an eternal curse on Messi’s national team? With time running down, he produced a lovely chip that allowed Nico Tagliafico to score at the far post. Tagliafico extended, but the ball went wide because he couldn’t make clean touch. And it seemed to dawn on me late in the day.

Scaloni predicted that penalties would be necessary. He hastened to introduce Sergio Aguero for the shootout, but the referee’s whistle blew, signaling the end of the ebb and flow.

Argentina could claim that if it were a boxing fight, their late flurry would earn them the victory on points. Such concerns, as well as the fact that the Colombians had only won one of their six Copa games, had no place in tournament football. It came down to penalties in the end.

It’s difficult to win two consecutive shootouts, as the Spanish discovered earlier on Tuesday, not least because the opposing goalkeeper has had a recent opportunity to study where the kicks are expected to travel. Davinson Sanchez and Mina, Colombia’s centre-backs, both hit to the keeper’s left, as they did against Uruguay on Saturday. Emiliano Martinez was waiting for them this time, just like he was the last time they scored. It was all over when he dove left again to parry Cardona’s shot.




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