Neymar will be putting his friendship with former Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi aside as he chases his first Copa America title with Brazil in Saturday's final.

Brazil takes on Argentina in the Copa America 2021 decider at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, with both players pursuing their first-ever continental crowns.

Messi's Argentina have not won the Copa since 1993, while injury meant Neymar was not part of the Brazil squad which triumphed in 2019.

The pair have a close friendship from Neymar's four years in Barcelona, while they have both dominated this Copa.

Messi leads the Copa with four goals and five assists, while Neymar has contributed two goals and three assists for hosts Brazil.

"Messi is, as I've always said, the best player I've ever seen play and he's a great friend," Neymar said. "But now we're in a final, we're rivals. I want to win and I really want to win this title, which would be my first Copa America.

"Messi has been looking for his first title with the national team for many years, and every time we we [Brazil] are not present at the tournament, I cheered for him.

"That's what I've been cheering for in the 2014 World Cup final, when he faced Germany.

"Now Brazil is in the dispute, so our friendship is on the line [laughs]. The respect between us in still great but only one can win."

He added: "When you're friends with someone, it's hard to forget the friendship you have... but for example when you play video games with a friend, you want to beat him anyway. It'll be the same thing on Saturday."

Neymar also hit out on Instagram about Brazilian fans who have turned on the national team and opted to support rivals Argentina.

"I'm Brazilian with a lot of pride, with a lot of love. My dream was always to be in the Brazilian national team and hear the fans singing," he wrote. "I've never supported or will support against anything Brazil is competing for, whatever the sport or modelling contest."

Brazil is chasing its 10th Copa title, while Argentina is looking to end its 28-year wait to add to its 14 continental crowns.

Argentina have won five games in a row, including their semi-final victory over Colombia, and are unbeaten across their past 19 games.

Brazil are undefeated in their past 13 games and have only conceded two goals at Copa America 2021.

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.

Lionel Messi's Argentina will face Brazil in the Copa America final after overcoming Colombia in a dramatic penalty shoot-out thanks to Emiliano Martinez.

With no extra time, penalties were needed after Luis Diaz equalised in the 61st-minute to cancel out Lautaro Martinez's first-half opener in Brasilia on Tuesday.

Emiliano Martinez was the hero in the shoot-out after the Argentina goalkeeper saved three spot-kicks to send the 14-time Copa winners – eyeing their first major title since 1993 – through to Sunday's blockbuster decider against defending champions Brazil.

Messi, who is craving his first senior crown with La Albiceleste, 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.

Martinez got his goal three minutes later, however, after drilling home past David Ospina – Messi with the presence of mind to twist away from Yerry Mina before lifting his head and finding the Inter star.

Colombia almost celebrated an immediate response, though Emiliano Martinez was on hand to deny Juan Cuadrado – earning his 100th cap – just moments later.

As has so often been the case during the tournament, Argentina fell away following a bright start and Colombia were unfortunate not to equalise.

Colombia came within a whisker of restoring parity in the 37th minute, hitting the woodwork twice within seconds after Mina's header rattled the crossbar from the resulting corner following Wilmar Barrios' deflected shot that struck the post.

On the stroke of half-time, Argentina went close to doubling their lead after Nicolas Gonzalez's header was narrowly pushed onto the roof of the net by Ospina.

Colombia responded well to falling behind and they were eventually rewarded via Diaz's equaliser just past the hour-mark.

Diaz got in behind Argentina's defence following a quick free-kick and the winger somehow managed to beat Emiliano Martinez from an acute angle as Lionel Scaloni's men were caught napping.

Colombia were fortunate to still be on level terms when Ospina came flying out of his penalty area as substitute Angel Di Maria charged through, but Barrios was on hand to make the last-ditch goal-line block, denying Lautaro Martinez in the 73rd minute.

Messi then saw his shot hit the woodwork with nine minutes remaining during a tense finale as the showdown headed to penalties.

Brazil superstar Neymar said he wants to face Lionel Messi's Argentina in the Copa America final after the defending champions edged Peru.

Neymar provided the assist for Lucas Paqueta's 35th-minute winner as Brazil saw off 2019 runners-up Peru 1-0 in Monday's semi-final.

Brazil will meet the winner of the Argentina-Colombia semi in Saturday's decider at the iconic Maracana and Neymar is eyeing a blockbuster showdown with La Albiceleste.

South American rivals Brazil and Argentina have not met in a Copa final since 2007, when the Selecao won 3-0.

"I want Argentina, I'm rooting for Argentina," Neymar – a former Barcelona team-mate of Messi – said post-match in Rio de Janeiro.

"I have friends there, then in the final it will be Brazil [laughs]."

 

Neymar was impressive throughout at Estadio Nilton Santos, attempting a team-high four shots to go with two key passes and the decisive assist.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward was also fouled three times. No player has been fouled more often than Neymar (25) during this year's CONMEBOL tournament.

Meanwhile, head coach Tite made history by equalling Mario Zagallo as the Brazil head coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12), winning nine games and drawing three fixtures.

The 60-year-old has the fifth-best winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 games in Copa America history – 75 per cent.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 42 clean sheets in 60 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (70 per cent).

After the game, however, Neymar took aim at Chilean referee Roberto Tobar, saying: "The referee cannot do what he did. It's a lack of respect for all the players, the way he talks, the way he looks, what he says on the field to the players. 

"From the very first minute I went to talk to him, and he was very arrogant. Everyone is saying that, I think it's not normal for both teams to complain. 

"Not the way he whistled the match. He can make mistakes, that's part of it, but the arrogance he had in that match... For me, he can't be a referee in a Copa America semi-final."

Just like the quarter-final, Paqueta scored the winning goal for Brazil – who are now eyeing their 10th Copa crown.

Paqueta has scored in back-to-back appearances for Brazil in all competitions for the first time in his career.

"Paqueta is a great player," Neymar said. "Has been growing with each game, with each game he plays for the national team. He had a great season for his club and has shown that he can be a very important player for us in the national team.  I'm happy with his participation, with the game he played. It's always good to meet great players in the national team."

Colombia will look to pull off an upset and reach the Copa America final for the first time outside of their country when they take on a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina on Tuesday.

Los Cafeteros have lost their six previous semi-finals at neutral venues in the competition, with their only two final appearances – in 1975 and 2001 – seeing them play at least one game on home soil.

Reinaldo Rueda's side beat Uruguay on penalties in the quarter-finals – David Ospina saving two spot-kicks in the shoot-out – following a goalless draw after 90 minutes.

A tough match with Argentina in Brasilia awaits and Rueda, who was only reappointed by Colombia in January, is happy with the progress made by his side in that short period.

"We played a very collective game against Uruguay, with a lot of solidarity and the right balance," he said. "All this helps us believe that we can continue with our improvements.

"We will continue to demand more and more from ourselves in each session before the next game."

If Colombia are to have any hope of overcoming Argentina, they will need to do something Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile failed to do by keeping Messi quiet.

He leads the Copa America scoring charts with four goals, including a fine free-kick in the quarter-final win over Ecuador, while also providing a competition-high four assists. 

Messi has never previously won a trophy with Argentina, and that remains the superstar forward's main focus ahead of Tuesday's semi-final showdown.

"I've always said that individual prizes are secondary. We're here for something else," he said. "We have an objective and we're focused on that."

Argentina squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Colombia in their most recent meeting just last month, a game that is still fresh in Messi's memory.

"They denied us in a match that we had under control. That's why we can't take this for granted," Messi added. "We have to play our game and keep hold of the ball."

 

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina - Lionel Messi

With his four goals and four assists so far, Messi has been involved in 80 per cent of Argentina's 10 goals at this edition of the Copa America.

He may not be focused on individual honours, but he is now just one short of Brazil great Pele's all-time goals record (77) for a South American country.

Colombia - Juan Cuadrado

The versatile Juventus winger missed his side's quarter-final with Uruguay after picking up two yellow cards in the group stage, but he is back in contention to face Argentina.

While Cuadrado may not have a goal or assist to his name yet this tournament, he remains one of Colombia's most dangerous players and his fresh legs could come in handy.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- Argentina and Colombia will face each other for the third time in the Copa America semi-finals. The first meeting was in 1993, when Argentina won on penalties, and the second one was in 2004 with another win for Argentina. 

- The last time these sides faced each other in the Copa America was in 2019 with a 2-0 win for Colombia.

- Argentina have failed to progress from just one of their last six Copa America semi-finals: against Brazil in 2019 (a 2-0 loss). Argentina have never played a Copa America final on Brazilian soil.

- Colombia are the team with the most recoveries (306), interceptions (74) and fouls conceded (78, alongside Paraguay) in the current Copa America.

"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."

Lionel Messi scored one goal and provided two assists as Argentina kept alive their bid to end their 28-year Copa America title wait with a 3-0 quarter-final win over 10-man Ecuador in Goiania on Saturday.

Messi hit the post early before showing composure to find Rodrigo De Paul for his maiden international goal in the 40th minute.

Late on, Messi swooped on a heavy touch from Piero Hincapie to set up Lautaro Martinez – for his second goal in two games - before adding one of his own with a superb free-kick.

Argentina extends their unbeaten run to 18 games under head coach Lionel Scaloni. La Tri exit without a win, despite reaching the knockout stage.

Argentina started strong, with Martinez's angled shot saved, while German Pezzella fired into the side-netting from a Messi corner.

Ecuador had a major let-off in the 23rd minute following Carlos Gruezo's error which allowed Messi in one-on-one, only to shoot into the upright.

Jhegson Mendez tested Argentine keeper Emiliano Martinez with a thunderous volley and Enner Valencia glanced a header off target as Ecuador offered some threat in an open game.

But Argentina took the lead in the 40th minute with Messi calmly finding De Paul who picked his spot after Ecuador keeper Hernan Galindez raced off his line to clear a through-ball.

Valencia flicked a header wide on half-time, while the Fenerbahce forward also hit the post early in the second half from a tight angle.

Argentina sat back in the second half, with Gonzalo Plata testing Emiliano Martinez in the 80th minute before Messi found Lautaro Martinez for an easy finish after Hincapie's error.

Hincapie was sent off in stoppage-time for a last-man foul following a VAR check, with Messi stepping up to curl home the free-kick from the edge of the box brilliantly.

What does it mean?

Argentina are into the last four as they target a drought-breaking continental crown. La Albiceleste have not lifted the Copa since Gabriel Batistuta inspired them to victory in 1993, claiming back-to-back titles.

Messi's Argentina have come close in recent times, finishing third in 2019 and runners-up in 2004 (prior to Messi's debut), 2007, 2015 and 2016. They have a great shot at ending that wait.

Fast-starting Argentina

De Paul's 40th-minute strike meant La Albiceleste have scored in the first half in 11 consecutive matches. Prior to Saturday's win, 12 of Argentina's past 13 goals had been scored in the opening 45 minutes of matches.

Ecuador's own drought

The 1993 tournament is also relevant for Ecuador, who finished fourth at that Copa; their best result in recent times.

La Tri have not bettered that performance since, with this being the third campaign they have fallen at the quarter-final stage since. Remarkably Ecuador have only won three Copa games since bowing out in the 2017 quarters.

What's next?

Argentina progresses to face Colombia in the semi-finals in Brasilia on Tuesday, while Ecuador pack their bags, with their next competitive action being 2022 World Cup qualifying in September.

Lionel Messi scored one goal and provided two assists as Argentina kept alive their bid to end their 28-year Copa America title wait with a 3-0 quarter-final win over 10-man Ecuador in Goiania on Saturday.

Messi hit the post early before showing composure to find Rodrigo De Paul for his maiden international goal in the 40th minute.

Late on, Messi swooped on a heavy touch from Piero Hincapie to set up Lautaro Martinez – for his second goal in two games - before adding one of his own with a superb free-kick.

Argentina extends their unbeaten run to 18 games under head coach Lionel Scaloni. La Tri exits without a win, despite reaching the knockout stage.

Argentina started strong, with Martinez's angled shot saved, while German Pezzella fired into the side-netting from a Messi corner.

Ecuador had a major let-off in the 23rd minute following Carlos Gruezo's error which allowed Messi in one-on-one, only to shoot into the upright.

Jhegson Mendez tested Argentine keeper Emiliano Martinez with a thunderous volley and Enner Valencia glanced a header off target as Ecuador offered some threat in an open game.

But Argentina took the lead in the 40th minute with Messi calmly finding Rodrigo De Paul who picked his spot after Ecuador keeper Hernan Galindez raced off his line to clear a through-ball.

Valencia flicked a header wide on half-time, while the Fenerbahce forward also hit the post early in the second half from a tight angle.

Argentina sat back in the second half, with Gonzalo Plata testing Martinez in the 80th minute before Messi found Martinez for an easy finish after Hincapie's error.

Hincapie was sent off in stoppage-time for a last-man foul following a VAR check, with Messi stepping up to curl home the free-kick from the edge of the box brilliantly.

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.

Lionel Messi produced a masterclass with two goals and an assist as he made history in Argentina's 4-1 victory over Bolivia at the Copa America.

Messi became Argentina's all-time record appearances holder after surpassing former team-mate Javier Mascherano with his 148th international cap in Cuiaba on Monday.

On the field, Messi was in magical form as he scored twice to take his internationally tally to 75, while creating the opener in a devastating first-half display in Argentina's final Group A fixture.

Messi somehow scooped the ball to Alejandro Gomez, who finished on the volley in the sixth minute, before the six-time Ballon d'Or winner stepped up to covert a 33rd-minute penalty and then beat Carlos Lampe with a superb lob nine minutes later.

Erwin Saavedra pulled a goal back for Bolivia in the 60th minute but Lautaro Martinez came off the bench and restored the three-goal advantage minutes later as Argentina sealed top spot to set up a quarter-final showdown against Ecuador.

Argentina were in control against a Bolivia team already eliminated, forcing a superb double-save from goalkeeper Lampe, who showed amazing agility to thwart Sergio Aguero and Angel Correa in the third minute.

Messi took centre stage as Argentina broke the deadlock – the superstar captain providing a highlight moment with a memorable assist as he had his back towards goal while teeing up in-form team-mate Gomez.

Bolivia's Diego Bejarano was penalised for a foul on Gomez inside the box after the half-hour mark and Messi made no mistake with the spot-kick.

After Franco Armani was called into action following a long-range effort from Jeyson Chura, Messi put Argentina 3-0 ahead courtesy of a perfectly chipped shot over Lampe prior to the interval, having been played through by Aguero.

Some complacency crept into Argentina's game in the second half and it was punished by Bolivia on the hour mark after Saavedra finished clinically into the roof of the net following Leonel Justiniano's driving run to the byline.

Martinez was only on the pitch for two minutes when he netted Argentina's fourth goal in the 65th minute and the merciless South American powerhouse should have had more, if not for the efforts of Lampe during the closing stages.

Lionel Messi has made history with Argentina, becoming the country's all-time record appearances holder in the Copa America clash against Bolivia.

Messi was named in the starting line-up for Argentina's final Group A fixture on Monday, surpassing former team-mate Javier Mascherano with his 148th international cap.

Argentina captain Messi is still chasing an elusive major honour in international colours, a fact somewhat at odds with his gloriously decorated career at LaLiga powerhouse Barcelona.

Nevertheless, as he represents La Albiceleste for the 148th time, the 34-year-old should also reflect upon a brilliant body of work, where he has typically set new standards – most notably standing as Argentina's all-time record goalscorer with 73.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at Messi's Argentina career in numbers.

 

CONMEBOL'S SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

In the eternal argument between fans of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal superstar's international record is sometimes held up as a point of difference.

Ronaldo pulled level with Ali Daei's all-time record of 109 goals for his country during the reigning European champions' 2-2 draw with France at Euro 2020 last week.

But there are a collection of "gimme" opponents afforded to Ronaldo within the European qualifiers that Messi simply does not enjoy.

The arduous CONMEBOL World Cup qualification marathon means plenty of his Argentina caps have arrived against high-quality opposition.

The highest proportion of his caps have come in South American World Cup qualifiers, where he has featured 50 times. This is set against 30 Copa outings, 19 appearances at the World Cup and 47 caps in international friendlies.

 

HIGH FIVES, BRILLIANT TREBLES

Argentina's bitter rivals Brazil, Paraguay and their 2015 and 2016 Copa America final tormentors Chile have faced up to Messi more than any other nation.

He has played them all 11 times, scoring five goals versus each. Against Bolivia, he will be aiming to improve upon a record of three goals from nine outings, with La Paz's sapping altitude pleasingly not a factor for Messi on this occasion.

Three of those strikes versus Brazil came in one sparkling 4-3 friendly win at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium in 2012.

Overall, he has six international hat-tricks and none more telling than the sensational salvo to secure a 3-1 win away to Ecuador that virtually single-handedly dragged Argentina to Russia 2018.

 

NIGHTMARE START AND OTHER MILESTONES

Messi's extended run at the summit of world football was not so easy to predict when he marked his Argentina debut from the bench against Hungary in Budapest in 2005 with a red card almost immediately after coming on.

His first goal came against Croatia in Basel on cap number six, while the otherwise forgettable 2010 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Germany in Cape Town was Messi's 50th cap.

Cap 100 came against guest participants Jamaica in the 2015 Copa America, a campaign that ended in now familiar disappointment.

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