Argentina advanced to the Copa America semifinals with a 3-0 win over Ecuador on Saturday.
RIO DE JANEIRO, RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Argentina trounced Ecuador 3-0 on Saturday to advance to the Copa America semifinals, with Lionel Messi scoring his 76th international goal, one short of Pele’s South American record.
Argentina eventually defeated Ecuador, with Messi scoring a late free kick and laying on two assists to keep the superstar’s hope of winning his first major international trophy alive.
Colombia, which defeated Uruguay on penalties earlier in the day, will be Argentina’s opponent at the Mané Garrincha Stadium on Tuesday. The defending champions, Brazil, will face Peru in the other semifinal.
Rodrigo de Paul opened the scoring in the 39th minute at the Olimpico Stadium in Goiania, tapping in an empty goal, before Lautaro Martinez added the second in the 84th minute with a close-range effort. Messi assisted each of them in his first match after his contract with Barcelona terminated.
Messi scored Argentina’s third goal with a free kick from the edge of the area in the dying minutes of the game. It was his tournament-leading fourth goal.
Strongly favored At 1-0, Argentina squandered multiple chances to stroll to an easy victory. In the second half, Ecuador struck the crossbar before Martinez doubled Argentina’s lead. After 71 minutes, though, when ngel di Maria replaced Giovani lo Celso, Messi became more influential.
Ecuador’s defender Piero Hincapié was also sent off near the end of the game for a foul on Di Maria, which led to Argentina’s free kick, which was scored by Messi.
It was his 76th goal for Argentina in his 149th match, one goal shy of Pelé’s record for most goals scored by a South American national team. It was also his 58th free kick goal for club and country, putting him one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Argentina’s goal for the competition, according to Messi, was to reach the semifinals.
“Right now, we need to relax and concentrate about Colombia. They defend well and counter quickly,” the striker remarked. “Individual prizes are secondary,” he said when asked about his performance.
Martinez seemed to have gotten the message.
“We’re all following Messi’s lead. “Today we saw how he sets the difference once again, and we’re all following him,” he remarked. “We regarded Argentina as a central figure. We made a difference today. It was a difficult match.”