Lionel Messi is leaving behind a legacy for Argentina after surpassing Pele as the all-time leading goalscorer for a South American nation, according to "proud" head coach Lionel Scaloni.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored a hat-trick in Thursday's 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Bolivia to overtake Brazil great Pele as CONMEBOL's top-scoring player.

Messi's 79 goals for Argentina have come in 153 appearances, compared to 77 in 92 caps for Pele, who had held the record since retiring from international duty in 1971.

It is the latest on a long list of records to have been broken by the ex-Barcelona star for club and country, and it comes two months after helping Argentina to win the Copa America.

La Albiceleste paraded the trophy – their first in 28 years – around the pitch at the Monumental at full-time and an emotional Messi broke down in tears.

Scaloni embraced Messi on the field and later hailed the Paris Saint-Germain forward for continuing to prove decisive for his country following his latest treble.

"I am proud to have him as a player. Messi is leaving a legacy to all the soccer players of the national team," Scaloni said at his post-match news conference.

"Messi was always a player who made a difference. Before and now. Winning magnified everything, and if before he was already an idol of the people, now it is much more. 

"Seeing them excited fills us with joy, but it lasts [only] until this international window is over, because afterwards we have to continue working."

 

Messi's hat-trick was his seventh for Argentina but his first on home soil and it helped extend his country's unbeaten run to 22 matches in a run stretching back to July 2019.

He is the only Argentina player to have scored multiple hat-tricks in World Cup qualifying.

Scaloni's men are second in the 10-team qualifying group, six points behind Brazil, whom they still have to face after last week's high-profile clash was controversially suspended.

Argentina also defeated Venezuela 3-1 in the same international window and Scaloni is pleased with what he has seen over the past week.

"I think we have a line of work from day one and we have grown," he said. "We've improved and corrected things even when we've won.

"This team has sacrifice, humility and an ability to unbalance other players in one-on-one situations."

Lionel Scaloni said he is upset Argentina's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier against Brazil was suspended amid farcical scenes on Sunday after Brazilian health officials stormed the pitch.

The high-profile contest at the Neo Quimica Arena in Sao Paulo, which was set to see the likes of Neymar and Lionel Messi face off in a repeat of July's Copa America final, was halted just minutes after kick-off.

Local authorities entered the field in an attempt to remove four Argentina players that had apparently breached coronavirus regulations.

Those four players in question – Premier League quartet Emiliano Martinez, Cristian Romero, Giovani Lo Celso and Emiliano Buendia – all ply their trade in England.

The United Kingdom is a red-listed country in Brazil, meaning restricted entry to the nation for those who have been in the UK in the past 14 days.

Brazil had called up nine internationals from the English top flight for their latest fixtures on the road to Qatar 2022, but none of the group travelled to their native country.

Despite having arrived in the country three days ago, ANVISA – Brazil's heath authority – demanded the Argentine quartet immediately quarantine.

But Argentina head coach Scaloni insisted his the Copa America champions were never informed the match was at risk of not being played.

"At no time were we notified that they could not play the match. We wanted to play the game, the players from Brazil too," he told reporters.

"It makes me very sad. I'm not looking for any culprits. Whether or not something happened, it was not the time to make that intervention.

"It should have been a party for everyone, to enjoy the best players in the world. I would like the people of Argentina to understand that as a coach I have to defend my players."

When the match began with the relevant Argentina players still included, health officials walked onto the pitch.

A melee broke out and the action was halted, with the entire Argentina team soon leaving the field.

Conversations continued, with the Brazil XI remaining on the pitch, while Argentina superstar Messi reappeared to speak with officials and his opponents, including Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Neymar.

Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Claudio Tapia said: "Here you can't talk about any lie because there is a health legislation under which all South American tournaments are played.

"The health authorities of each country approved a protocol that we have been complying with to the maximum.

"What was experienced today is regrettable for football, it is a very bad image. 

"Four people came in to interrupt the match to make a notification and CONMEBOL asked the players to go to the locker room."

The AFA also released a statement, which read: "The Argentine Football Association expresses its deep discomfort at the suspension of the meeting between the Argentine national team and the Brazilian national team in Sao Paulo. 

"Like the CBF, the AFA is surprised by the actions of ANVISA once the game has started. It should be noted that the Albiceleste delegation was in Brazilian territory since September 3 at 8am, complying with all current sanitary protocols regulated by CONMEBOL for the normal development of the qualifiers heading to Qatar 2022. 

"Following the report from the CONMEBOL officials and the match referee, the information will be forwarded to the competent FIFA body in accordance with current regulations. Football should not experience these kinds of episodes that undermine the sportsmanship of such an important competition."

Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues joined his opposite number in criticising the health officials for the timing of their intervention.

"I feel sorry for all the sports fans who wanted to watch the game on television," he told Brazil's Sportv.

"With all due respect to ANVISA, they could have resolved this earlier and not waited for the game to start."

Brazil head coach Tite has argued that European clubs preventing South American players from being released for international duty is creating inequality ahead of next year's World Cup.

Tite will be without numerous key players for Sunday's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying match against Argentina after several English and Spanish clubs refused to release players travelling to red list countries.

Countries on that list for travel to and from the UK require arrivals to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days upon their return, regardless of vaccination status.

LaLiga followed suit on the Premier League clubs, refusing to release 25 players from 13 different clubs for matches to be played in South America.

Among the Brazilian contingent were captain Thiago Silva, goalkeeper Alisson, Fred, Renan Lodi, Gabriel Jesus, Richarlison and Roberto Firmino.

“I feel that there must be equality for all teams and I trust the good sense of the associations," Tite said at Saturday's pre-game news conference.

"That hurts the preparation of Brazil and all the South American football teams that will be left without the same preparation for the World Cup, giving an advantage to the European teams."

Premier League pair Aston Villa and Tottenham permitted Emiliano Martinez, Emiliano Buendia, Giovani Lo Celso and Cristiano Romero to link up with Argentina under the belief they would return after the Brazil game.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni claimed that he knew nothing about any agreement with Villa or Tottenham and intended to retain the trio for their third match against Bolivia.

Tite also hinted that Marseille midfielder Gerson would likely get a starting chance against Argentina along with Flamengo midfielder Everton Ribeiro.

Brazil remain top in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying with a perfect record with seven wins from seven games, while Argentina are unbeaten in second with 15 points.

Lionel Messi looks likely to be fully fit to face Brazil despite Luis Martinez's horror tackle on the Argentina captain, head coach Lionel Scaloni said.

Venezuela's Martinez was sent off for a crude lunge on the Paris Saint-Germain star in the Albiceleste's 3-1 World Cup qualifying win this week as Scaloni's men maintained their unbeaten streak.

There were concerns Messi would be a doubt for the clash in Sao Paulo against Brazil, who are six points clear at the top of the CONMEBOL standings after winning all seven of their qualifiers.

However, Scaloni was confident his talisman would be fit to start when speaking with the media on Saturday.

"Leo is okay," he said. "This afternoon, we'll train and focus on the pitch. Those who played against Venezuela didn't touch the ball yesterday [Friday].

"We'll know 100 per cent this afternoon. In principle, he's fine. It was a big scare, but that's how it stayed."

Scaloni expects an extremely difficult match against the side Argentina beat 1-0 in the final of the Copa America this year.

"Whoever plays, they're important opposition. In no case do we minimise the game," he said.

"They're coming off an incredibly positive streak and they're at the same level whoever plays, with players of quality in every position.

"These are opponents of enormous quality, of enormous attacking power. If you're not ready for that, you can suffer. If you don't think the opponent can hurt you, you're making a mistake.

"We know that it can happen at some point, but we also know what we have to do when we have the ball. We only have one way to play: go deep with the ball into the opposition half."

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni urged his team not to "rest on our laurels" after the in-form Copa America champions set up a mouth-watering top-of-the-table World Cup qualifying showdown with rivals Brazil.

Lautaro Martinez, Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa were on target as Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to 21 matches by downing 10-man Venezuela 3-1 in CONMEBOL qualifying on Thursday.

After first-half substitute Luis Martinez was sent off for a horrifying challenge on Lionel Messi in the 32nd minute, Argentina – playing for the first time since July's drought-ending Copa triumph over Brazil, their first title in 28 years – took control of proceedings.

Argentina are second and unbeaten through seven qualifiers on the road to Qatar 2022, six points behind Brazil, while they have not tasted defeat since November 2019.

As Argentina turn their attention to Sunday's blockbuster in Sao Paulo, where Brazil will put their perfect record on the line, Scaloni told reporters post-game: "It's special for the players to have the patch of champions on their chest, they fought so hard to win the Copa America.

"The important thing is to not rest on our laurels."

The complexion of the match changed when Luis Martinez – who replaced Jose Velazquez earlier in the half – saw red.

Messi went to ground after receiving a high foot to the shin and the challenge, initially a yellow card, was upgraded to red after the referee consulted the pitch-side monitor following a VAR review.

Lautaro Martinez then opened the scoring in the second minute of first-half stoppage time, the Inter star scoring his third goal in qualifying after being played through by Giovani Lo Celso.

Joaquin Correa and Angel Correa struck within three minutes – the 71st and 74th minute – to put the result beyond doubt, though Yeferson Soteldo's last-gasp spot-kick gave the home crowd something to celebrate.

Looking ahead to the Copa America final rematch with Brazil, Scaloni added: "We will have time to analyse how the players are. It will be a different game and everyone is available.

"We have things to improve, surely, but I'm not going to say them. We always have to improve, when you win or lose. We will try to do our best."

Lautaro Martinez added: "The three points are very important. Venezuela is a very complicated opponent. In South America, they're all difficult but we had a great first half.

"We created chances and after the goal we were able to work with more peace of mind. We brought home three important points. I think we had a great first half today, beyond the fact that they were down a man.

"For a striker, it's important to score but the most important thing is that the Argentina national team win. You always have to think about the group."

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni wants to play star man Lionel Messi in all three of the side's upcoming World Cup qualifiers despite his lack of game-time at club level.

Messi joined Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona last month but only made his debut as a 66th-minute substitute in Sunday's 2-0 win at Reims.

The six-time Ballon d'Or had been left out previously as he built up his fitness having not played since Argentina's Copa America final victory over Brazil on July 10.

Messi has now linked up with the Argentine squad ahead of three qualifiers against Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia.

"We evaluate match by match and when I've spoken to [Messi] he says he's fine," Scaloni told reporters.

"Obviously he doesn’t have the same minutes in him as he did ahead of the Copa America but everyone knows what I think of him and he will play all three games if he is fit."

Scaloni was pressed on whether he preferred 34-year-old Messi to be playing in LaLiga with Barcelona or Ligue 1 with PSG but would not be drawn.

PSG, who were Ligue 1 runners-up last season, are one of the favourites for this season's Champions League title.

"If Messi was at Barcelona he would play with Sergio [Aguero]," Scaloni said. "We stay totally outside the transfer market because we know that being part of the Argentina squad is totally different to being at a club.

"Logically if we had to choose, we'd choose from him to be with many Argentines because that helps.

"We have no preferences, we know he is at a good club, one of the best in Europe and that will compete on the biggest stages. That is the most important thing."

Lionel Messi has expressed his happiness and relief at finally winning silverware with Argentina after Saturday's Copa America 2021 triumph over Brazil at the Maracana.

Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 after Angel Di Maria's 22nd-minute strike, earning six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi his maiden piece of silverware with La Albiceleste.

Messi has finished runner-up in the Copa three times; 2007, 2015 and 2016, as well as runner-up at the 2014 World Cup and revealed his joy after the game.

"I needed to get the thorn out of being able to achieve something with the national team, I had been very close for many years," Messi told reporters.

"I knew that at some point it was going to go right, it was going to happen and I think there is no better moment than this.

"I feel that God was saving this moment for me, against Brazil in the final and in their country."

Along with breaking 34-year-old Messi's international duck, it is also was Argentina's first Copa America since 1993, ending a 28-year wait.

"We still cannot believe that we are champions and what we have achieved," Messi said. "But I think it will be a match that will remain in history, not only because we are champions of South America but also because we beat them Brazil in their country."

Argentina's win marked 20 games unbeaten under head coach Lionel Scaloni and offered optimism for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Scaloni has changed the Argentine side, with relative newcomers Emiliano Martinez, Rodrigo De Paul and Cristiano Romero impressing.

"Lionel deserves special merit," Messi said. "He always wanted the best for the national team. He knew how to put together a winning team and deserves recognition."

Messi added: "We have to take advantage of this generation, this new crop of players. I told them they were going to be the future of the national team and I was not wrong. They showed it, today we are champions."

Scaloni also heaped praise on Messi who was named Player of the Tournament alongside Brazil's Neymar.

The Argentine finished as the equal top scorer with four goals as well as most assists (five).

“If all Argentines knew about the way he played this Copa America, they would love him more and more," Scaloni said. "I have no doubt.

"I, as a coach, could never do without this player, including playing in inferior conditions than we faced in this final and the semi-final.

"That's the kind of player we have and we have to enjoy, because one day in your career you won't be playing anymore. I have no words for him, he makes things easier on a daily basis."

Lionel Messi hailed "phenomenon" Emiliano Martinez after the Argentina goalkeeper saved three penalties to lead La Albiceleste to the Copa America final.

After Tuesday's semi-final against Colombia ended 1-1 without extra time, Martinez was the hero in the shoot-out, saving penalties from Davinson Sanchez, Yerry Mina and Edwin Cardona as Argentina earned a blockbuster showdown with defending champions Brazil.

Penalties were needed after Lautaro Martinez's seventh-minute opener was cancelled out by Colombia winger Luis Diaz just past the hour-mark in Brasilia.

Messi will have another chance to claim his first senior international trophy on Saturday as Argentina eye their first title since 1993, and the superstar captain heaped praise on Emiliano Martinez post-game.

"At times it became difficult," said Messi, who provided the assist for Lautaro Martinez and struck the post with nine minutes remaining. "But we have Emi who is a phenomenon.

"We trusted him. We achieved the goal of being able to play every game and now we are going to the final.

"It was very hard, but we deserved it because we wanted it.

"The last cup, the group had already become strong and had left a good image. Now we are going to the final."

Argentina – Copa runners-up in 2015 and 2016 – are in the midst of a 19-match unbeaten streak, dating back to the 2019 semi-final against Brazil at the CONMEBOL tournament.

It is the second longest unbeaten streak among Argentina head coaches, Lionel Scaloni only behind Alfio Basile (33 between 1991 and 1993).

 

"It is a time to celebrate, to enjoy. Tomorrow [Wednesday] we will think about the final," Scaloni told reporters.

"It takes a lot to get here, a lot of work, a lot of time from all the people who accompany us.

"My voice almost broke when talking about this group of players. We have been focused for a long time and they continue to push forward."

Messi finished with a team-high five key passes and a joint team-best three shots against Colombia.

Since 2011, Messi is the Argentina player with the most duels of the ball – averaging 15.7 per game after being involved in 26 in the semi-finals.

"For me, there is no better version of Messi, he is the one that always gives," added Scaloni. "We are very proud of him and of his team-mates."

As for Emiliano Martinez, Scaloni said: "We are very happy with Emiliano's performance, not only because of the penalties, but also because of the security he is transmitting. The group of goalkeepers supports themselves permanently and we like that."

When you take a look at Lionel Messi's trophy cabinet, there isn't much missing.

No player in Barcelona's history has won more titles than Messi at Camp Nou – 10 LaLiga trophies and four Champions League crowns among his club-record haul of 34 pieces of silverware.

That's even before you get to his individual accolades and records… six Ballons d'Or to go with being Barcelona and Argentina's all-time leading goalscorer among other things.

But there is one glaring absence in Messi's trophy cabinet – a senior international title with Argentina. Unlike legendary countryman Diego Maradona and even Portuguese foe Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi has never conquered the international stage.

Regarded as one of, if not, the greatest footballer of all time, yet Messi has often been the bridesmaid and never the bride with La Albiceleste following three runners-up medals at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016, while he was left heartbroken in the 2018 World Cup decider.

Such is the pain, there's also been periods of international retirement for Messi. The 34-year-old debating whether to shoulder the load of another drought-ending quest for Argentina, dating back to the 1993 Copa America.

But, thanks to Emiliano Martinez and his heroics, Messi's coveted dream of international glory remains alive as the superstar prepares for a fifth final in Argentina colours.

 

Martinez saved three penalties in the shoot-out to send Argentina through to Saturday's showpiece against defending champions and rivals Brazil at the iconic Maracana after Tuesday's clash with Colombia ended 1-1.

Argentina goalkeeper Martinez came up big when his country needed him most, saving penalties from Davinson Sanchez, Mina and Edwin Cardona. It was the third shoot-out between Argentina and Colombia in Copa history, with the former winning all of them.

Prior to Martinez's herculean effort, magical Messi had pulled the strings for Argentina.

Messi was brilliant from the outset, the superstar dancing past three players before picking out Lautaro Martinez, but the latter's header sailed just wide of the post in the fourth minute.

Not heeding Messi's initial warning, the most-capped player in Argentina's history did create the opening goal three minutes later – twisting away from Mina before lifting his head to find Lautaro for his fifth assist of this year's tournament.

It was a sign of things to come from Messi, who ended the opening half with a flawless passing accuracy – 100 per cent.

 

As has so often been the case during the tournament, Argentina fell away following a bright start and Colombia were unfortunate not to equalise. However, Messi – unsurprisingly – continued to be at the heart of his team's best moments.

The conductor of Argentina's orchestra, Messi was almost unstoppable – it took a third Colombia defender to hack him down. Messi then saw his shot hit the woodwork with nine minutes remaining.

He finished with a team-high key passes and a joint team-best three shots against Colombia. Since 2011, Messi is the Argentina player with the most duels of the ball – averaging 15.7 per game after being involved in 26 in the semi-finals.

Argentina has been the source of great anguish for Messi. But, Lionel Scaloni's men are riding the wave of 19 matches without defeat, dating back to the 2019 Copa semi against Brazil. It is the second longest unbeaten streak among Argentina head coaches, only behind Alfio Basile (33 between 1991 and 1993).

It seems somewhat fitting that Messi – amid talk of a possible seventh Ballon d'Or – has the chance to cap his remarkable career with an international prize against the Selecao in Rio de Janeiro.

"I honestly don't know if he's going to get tired of being praised every day," Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni mused after Lionel Messi's latest masterclass.

Once again, Messi was at the heart of all of Argentina's attacking play, providing two assists before netting a goal of his own with a sublime late free-kick in Saturday's 3-0 Copa America quarter-final win over Ecuador.

The 34-year-old tops the Copa America charts for goals and assists, with four of each.

As Scaloni suggests, it is hard to stop praising him. There arguably are not enough superlatives to describe Messi.

This Copa may have been viewed as the younger Neymar's time, on home soil, but the numbers back up the veteran Messi so far.

On a grander scale, Messi has now scored 76 goals for Argentina, one short of Pele's 77 for Brazil.

Only Pele has scored more goals for a CONMEBOL nation, meaning Messi – who will play his 150th cap for Argentina in the semi-finals – is on the verge of another remarkable feat.

There is no shortage of individual accomplishments which could be listed off for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner but as Argentina progress deeper at the Copa America in Brazil, the question of team success at international level looms for Messi.

He has never won a Copa America, nor the World Cup, coming close to the latter as 2014 runners-up in Brazil.

Fourteen-time winners Argentina, as a nation, have not lifted the Copa America since their second all-time top scorer Gabriel Batistuta helped them to the 1993 title.

Messi is playing at his sixth Copa, with Argentina finishing as runners-up three times during that period.

If La Albiceleste overcome Colombia in the semi-finals, they will likely face nemesis Brazil in the decider at the Maracana, the same venue where they lost the 2014 World Cup final.

The current crop is vastly different to the abundantly talented side from 2014, but Scaloni has made this group tough to break down, with a dependence Messi's individual brilliance in attack.

Scaloni's Argentina have gone 18 games unbeaten now, while they have only conceded once in their past four games at Copa.

This side have also scored in the first half in 11 consecutive matches. On Saturday against Ecuador they dearly clung on to a 1-0 lead for long periods of the second half, repelling several attacks with a resolute appproach as Ecuador had more possession (54 per cent). It is not the first time under Scaloni this has happened successfully.

So is this Messi's best shot at international success? Is it his last chance at the Copa, with the next event scheduled for 2024?

That remains to be seen for the 34-year-old, who is currently a free agent after his Barcelona contract expired on June 30, although he is expected to re-sign and play at next year's World Cup.

But the ingredients are there for that breakthrough success for both Messi and Argentina.

As the list of individual accomplishments and accolades continues to grow, achieving that elusive international team success with Argentina would solidify Messi's legacy. The time is now.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni has hailed Lionel Messi as "the best player of all time" after scoring one goal and setting up two others in the 3-0 Copa America quarter-final win over Ecuador.

Messi was the architect as La Albiceleste progressed to the Copa semi-finals where they will take on Colombia on Tuesday in Brasilia.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner set up Rodrigo De Paul for Argentina's 40th-minute opener, before assisting Lautaro Martinez's 85th minute sealer.

Messi grabbed a goal of his own in stoppage-time with a trademark free-kick which took him to 76 international goals in his 149th appearance for La Albiceleste.

"Leo's game, I honestly don't know if he's going to get tired of being praised every day," Scaloni said at the post-game media conference. "The best thing that can happen for us football lovers is that the stars play until any age they can and we enjoy it.

"Messi is enjoyed even by opponents when they play against him. We are talking about the best player of all time.

"It is difficult for a player to be at his level. Neymar may at some point be a similar player but because of what he has done, is doing and will continue to do, we must remember him for who he is."

The win extended Argentina's unbeaten run under Scaloni to 18 games and gives them a shot at ending their 28-year wait for a Copa America title.

La Albiceleste had recorded three wins and a draw in the group stage, including two unconvincing 1-0 victories, and Scaloni was content with a more emphatic result.

"Whoever believes that you can win every game 3-0 easily is wrong especially in this Copa America, which has conditions that are very different," he said.

"I don't know if it's the best moment for the team. It is an instance that we like, it is decisive and we will try to move forward with the utmost humility and work."

Scaloni was wary of semi-final opponents Colombia who won 4-2 on penalties against Uruguay after  a goalless draw to secure their spot in the last four.

"I want to emphasize that in this Copa America any of these teams could push any team in the world," he said.

"The level is quite high, it is not like before where the matches were taken for granted that you would win.

"We have already faced Colombia in the [World Cup] qualifiers. Now they will recover [Juan] Cuadrado, it will be difficult and like all matches.

"We hope to play it with the same intensity and enthusiasm, we have an enormous desire to play in the final."

Argentina are determined to avoid allowing Ecuador any sweet 16 celebrations after Saturday's quarter-final, having never lost in 15 previous Copa America clashes with La Tri.

Experienced defender Nicolas Otamendi said Argentina would look to provide a platform for their attacking stars, who include the likes of Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martinez, by keeping it tight at the back against the Ecuadorians.

While Argentina topped their group, achieving three wins and a draw from four games, Ecuador scraped through with three draws and a defeat from the pool containing Brazil.

It was a 1-1 draw with an under-strength Brazil in Goiania on Sunday that carried Ecuador into the knockout rounds, and it would be a monumental shock if they beat Argentina.

However, the last-eight clash is also being played in Goiania, at the Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico where Ecuador tamed the Selecao.

Otamendi, the former Manchester City star who now plays club football for Benfica, said: "Defensive solidity gives you a better attack. With the attacking potential we have, it's important to give them security so they can attack calmly.

"We have to try to have defensive order to take advantage of the potential we have from midfield forward."

Otamendi added: "This shirt demands commitment and winning tournaments. You always want to make a mark with your country. We will try to do our best to progress."

Argentina last won the Copa America in 1993 and head coach Lionel Scaloni told a news conference that playmaker Giovani Lo Celso would start Saturday's game.

"Ecuador are rivals of maximum difficulty," Scaloni added. "We must respect them and go out into the field with total humility. It will be a very difficult match."

Ecuador midfielder Jhegson Mendez was outstanding against Brazil, with team highs for possession gained (10 times) and interceptions (3), while finding his man with 48 of 50 passes for a 96 per cent success rate.

It will take something similar to attempt to stifle Argentina, and Mendez said on Friday: "Every game is different, each team has its own approach. We have ours and we will try in midfield to control as much of the game as possible to give ourselves more chances and be 100 per cent concentrated to minimise errors."

 


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

Amid seemingly endless hoopla over when or whether he will sign a new Barcelona contract, Messi is attempting to stay focused on delivering a major trophy for his country. He won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2008 but that feels like a meagre return for his contribution to La Albiceleste. Messi took his tallies to 75 goals and 148 appearances when he struck twice in the group finale against Bolivia. It is beyond obvious that he is the man Ecuador will fear the most.

Ecuador – Jhegson Mendez

Enner Valencia and Angel Mena were excellent going forward against Brazil, but Ecuador's hopes for their clash with a full-strength Argentina are likely to hinge on how they manage the game. If Mendez and his midfield colleagues can show discipline, keep their shape and protect their defence, they will have done exceedingly well. But that will be imperative if they are to somehow pull off a victory.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- Argentina have never lost against Ecuador at the Copa America in 15 games (W10 D5). The Argentinians have scored in 13 of those 15 games. However, this will be the first meeting between the teams in the knockout stage of the competition.

- Argentina have kept three cleen sheets in their last five games against Ecuador in the Copa America (W3 D2). In this period, Argentina have scored 12 goals and only conceded two.

- Ecuador have lost just one of their last five games in the Copa America, including a draw with guest team Japan at the 2019 tournament. However, they are winless in these five matches, with four draws and a defeat.

- Argentina were the only team to score a direct free-kick in the 2021 Copa America group stage. Messi scored this goal against Chile at the start of the competition.

- Messi was the player with the most dribbles completed (22) in the group stage.

Lautaro Martinez insists he was not feeling the pressure despite a goal drought that ended with his strike in Argentina's 4-1 Copa America win over Bolivia on Monday.

The win extended Lionel Scaloni's side's unbeaten run to 17 matches – the joint-third longest undefeated sequence in the country's history – yet Argentina came into the game having only scored three goals from as many Copa games.

Inter forward Martinez had drawn a blank in his past five games for Argentina, dating back to November's 2-0 World Cup qualifying win in Peru.

Martinez was back on the scoresheet against the bottom side in Group A, coming off the bench to strike in the 65th minute in a resounding win.

"I'm calm because the coaching staff and my team-mates trust me," Martinez told TyC Sports.

"The ball sometimes goes in and sometimes it doesn't. Strikers live by goals, but I stayed calm."

Argentina's victory sealed top spot in Group B, locking in a quarter-final date with Ecuador in Goiania on Saturday.

"We will face what comes next in the Copa in the best way; a tough opponent that we already know," Martinez said.

Lionel Messi produced a masterclass with two goals and an assist, making history as Argentina's most capped player in style as he surpassed former team-mate Javier Mascherano's tally with his 148th international cap.

It was Messi's first brace for Argentina in 18 games, dating back to August 2019. The 34-year-old also recorded his second two-goal outing in a Copa fixture.

Martinez added: "I am happy with the team's work, we are growing. Bolivia was already eliminated and we took the game on seriously and responsibly. Every time you play with Argentina you have to go in with everything to win."

Argentina head coach Scaloni said he has the "utmost respect" for Ecuador and would not be drawn on his likely line-up for the game.

"I would be lying if I said who is going to play on Saturday against Ecuador," he said.

Scaloni did clarify defender Cristian Romero was left out against Bolivia as he manages his squad ahead of the Ecuador game, not due to a fresh injury.

"There is no need to worry about Cristian," he said. "He was left off the bench because very difficult games are coming and the idea is that everyone needs minutes."

He added: "We have the utmost respect for Ecuador. They have shown that they are a good team, young, dynamic, with good players and are going to fight."

When it comes to Lionel Messi, there are not enough superlatives to describe his brilliance.

That was the case following Messi's magical performance in his record-breaking appearance for Argentina.

Two goals and one unbelievable assist to guide Argentina to a 4-1 rout of Bolivia at the Copa America on Monday.

Three goal involvements all in 45-minutes work for Messi, who shattered another record with his 148th international cap, surpassing former team-mate Javier Mascherano.

Already La Albiceleste's all-time leading scorer, it was Messi's first brace for Argentina in 18 games, dating back to August 2019. The 34-year-old also recorded his second two-goal outing in a Copa fixture.

Messi improved his international tally to 75, while netting his 11th and 12th career Copa goals – the fourth-highest scorer for Argentina at the showpiece CONMEBOL tournament.

 

At this stage of his remarkable career, no one should be surprised by the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

However, Messi was simply incredible from the outset in a merciless display in the final Group A fixture in Cuiaba.

Messi – who has not missed a minute of Argentina's four Copa games in 2021 so far – broke the internet in the sixth minute.

Angel Correa's turn outside the penalty area sparked the move as the ball found the feet of Messi.

Messi's back was towards goal, while the superstar captain was surrounded by at least three Bolivia defenders. But, we know how this movie ends.

He somehow scooped the ball to Alejandro Gomez and the evergreen veteran finished on the volley to cap an irresistible passage of play.

A Messi penalty followed just past the half-hour mark – the 34-year-old converting the spot-kick to get in on the action.

What happened next was even better.

Close friend Sergio Aguero, who will unite with Messi at Barcelona in 2021-22, was the architect. Manchester City's all-time leading goalscorer playing a throughball approaching half-time.

Messi beat the offside trap and beat Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe with a superb lob in the 42nd minute.

If not for Lampe's heroics, Messi – who completed a game-high 63 passes in the opponent's half while attempting four shots on target (a Copa record) – would have finished the match with more than a hat-trick.

Regardless, it was a special display as Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to 17 matches (W10 D7) under Lionel Scaloni – the joint-third longest undefeated sequence of a coach in the country's history, alongside Guillermo Stabile.

While Messi still covets an elusive international crown with Argentina, the famous number 10 celebrated his latest milestone only he knows how.

Argentina can clinch top spot in Group A as they aim to maintain their unbeaten run under Lionel Scaloni against a Bolivia side already certain of an early Copa America exit.

The format of the 2021 tournament means just one team from each section misses out on the last eight, though the final matches are still pivotal as nations jostle for positions in the final standings.

Bolivia's exit was confirmed with a 2-0 reverse against Uruguay last time out, another blank in front of goal meaning Cesar Farias' side have managed to score just once in three outings so far.

Argentina have also found it tough going in attack, despite the presence of the talismanic Lionel Messi. Following a 1-1 draw with Chile in their opener, they have recorded back-to-back 1-0 triumphs over Uruguay and Paraguay.

Those results mean head coach Scaloni has not seen his team lose in his previous 16 games. His last defeat in the job came in the previous edition of the Copa America, as they were knocked out by rivals Brazil in the 2019 semi-finals.

A potential rematch appears unlikely until the final this time around, with Brazil winning Group B. Argentina know a victory in Cuiaba will be enough for them to do the same ahead of the quarter-finals.

Scaloni has a decision to make over whether to rest Messi, who has played every minute in the competition so far.

While the Barcelona superstar just recently turned 34, he may want to be involved from the start as he looks to win his 148th international cap, which would move him out of a tie with Javier Mascherano to sit alone at the top of the list for Argentina appearances.

Those in danger of receiving a suspension with another yellow card on Monday are likely to be left out, among them Lautaro Martinez, Leandro Paredes and Giovanni Lo Celso.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina - Alejandro Gomez

'Papu' Gomez arrived late to international football but helped make up for lost time in his previous outing with his first goal in a competitive fixture for Argentina. He struck in the 10th minute against Paraguay, while he also completed 88.2 per cent of his attempted passes in the opposition half before being substituted. Did he do enough to keep his place, though?

Bolivia - Carlos Lampe

Goalkeeper Lampe has been a rare positive for his team at the Copa America, making the most saves per game (eight) among those to have played in two or more fixtures. Even with Argentina potentially resting players, Bolivia's last line of defence may well be busy again as they prepare to say farewell to this year's Copa.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- This will be the 10th meeting in the Copa America at a neutral venue, with Argentina never previously losing in such contests (W9 D1). However, Bolivia have won twice when serving as competition hosts, in 1963 and 1979.

- Scaloni is unbeaten in his last 16 managerial games in all competitions, his best run since taking charge of Argentina (W9 D7).

- After five unbeaten games in the Copa America with Venezuela, Cesar Farias has lost the last four; one for Venezuela (semi-final in 2011) and three for Bolivia (all this year).

- Argentina are the team with the most goals scored in the first 15 minutes of their games (two), with all of their goals scored in the first half of games (three, same as Ecuador).

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