By Ubaid Awan
HOUSTON – The FIFA world rankings sometimes don’t accurately measure the ability and potential of a national team. But no one will make the mistake of questioning Argentina’s No. 1 status. Not after the display of magnificence a sold-out NRG Stadium crowd witnessed on Tuesday.
The Argentines played like the best team in the world in their Copa America Centenario semifinal against the United States, and much of that had to do with the best soccer player on the planet doing whatever he wanted.
Lionel Messi continued to make himself at home in this one-off tournament to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the South American championship. The reigning Ballon d’Or winner set up the first and final goals and scored one of his own on a spectacular free kick to lead Argentina to Sunday’s final with a resounding 4-0 victory over the U.S.
Messi’s goal moved him to the top of Argentina’s all-time scoring list, surpassing the 54 scored by the great Gabriel Batistuta. The victory earned La Albiceleste its third straight final in a major tournament after finishing runner-up at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America.
The Americans, despite their disappointing performance, get to play one more game. They face the loser of Wednesday’s Colombia-Chile semifinal on Saturday in the Copa America third-place game in Glendale, Ariz.
“We played against a very good team,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “You have to take every little detail in the best possible way. I don’t think we did that tonight.”
Messi needed just three minutes to make his mark. A sliding clearance by Fabian Johnson rolled the ball to the top of the penalty area where Messi calmly sized up the situation and chipped the ball over the U.S. defense to the back post. His pass found Lavezzi, whose header back across goal caught goalkeeper Brad Guzan too far out of his net for a 1-0 lead.
The entire Argentine team, not just Messi, was here to put on a show, complete with backheels and stylish (and effortless) ball possession that made the Americans look helpless. Argentina ended up with 68 percent possession in the first half.
But there’s no better showman in the sport of soccer than Messi. And he gave the sellout crowd and the TV audience a memory of individual brilliance they will never forget.
After Messi got tackled to the ground by Chris Wondolowski, a surprising selection among the U.S. starting eleven, Argentina’s No. 10 patiently stood over the ball to take the free kick. He had already scored from a dead-ball situation in his tournament debut en route to a hat trick in a 5-0 win over Panama.
That free kick was exceptional. But the one he struck in the 32nd minute was even better – unstoppable, really – as Messi, from about 25 yards out, lifted the ball over the U.S. wall as if it were controlled by strings or remote control and into the top right corner for a 2-0 Argentina lead.
Lavezzi whipped a ball into the box where Gonzalo Higuain had timed his run perfectly. Guzan blocked Higuain’s first shot but gave up a rebound that the Napoli man easily tapped home for a 3-0 cushion in the 50th minute.
The Americans, to their credit, kept their energy up as they tried to get a goal back. That said, with 15 minutes left, the U.S. still had yet to record a shot on goal in response to Argentina’s seven. They nearly got that first shot in the 77th minute when Pulisic had the ball with space in the box but chose to pass to Zardes instead. Argentina broke up the play and cleared.
Messi was not finished. He pounced on a lazy giveaway deep in the U.S. third and played an incredible cutback through the box to an awaiting Higuain for the striker’s second goal and a 4-0 Argentine lead.
“We’ll get ourselves ready for another game,” Bradley said.