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).

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni voiced concerns about the physical condition of his players while highlighting the importance of Lionel Messi after La Albiceleste booked their spot in the Copa America quarter-finals.

Papu Gomez was the hero for Argentina, with his 10th-minute goal sealing a 1-0 win over Paraguay on Monday and a spot in the last eight of the showpiece CONMEBOL tournament.

There was no rest for superstar captain Messi, who equalled Javier Mascherano's record for most Argentina appearances with his 147th cap, despite Scaloni's men backing up from Friday's success against Uruguay.

Messi has not missed a minute of Argentina's three Group A games so far, amassing 74 touches against Paraguay while winning 75 per cent of a team-high 16 duels.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner had the most shots (three) and shots on target (two) among his team-mates as Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to 16 matches, dating back to 2019.

"The reality is that Messi has been playing every game and it is very difficult not to count on him, even though he is tired he continues to make the difference," said Scaloni, who introduced the likes of Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero into the starting XI.

"Today we made several changes and despite that we were able to take all three points."

Without a major title since the 1993 Copa America, Argentina snapped a four-game winless drought against Paraguay in Brasilia.

Argentina ended the contest with a total of eight shots (five from outside the box) – their second lowest figure during the Scaloni era, tied with the match against Ecuador in October 2020 and one more than they registered against Paraguay at the 2019 Copa America.

Paraguay controlled possession across the 90 minutes – 56.9 to 43.1 per cent, the first time in the last nine meetings with Argentina they had more ball possession.

"What worries me is the physical condition of the players because we came from playing three days ago and today the conditions were not the best, so we had to rotate players," Scaloni told reporters.

"The first half we played very well and in the second, due to the merit of Paraguay and their good physical condition, as a result of many days off, they had more control of the game. The team showed a good image in the first half, but there are always things to keep improving."

"The beauty of all this is the process," Lionel Scaloni said post-game.

Sixteen games unbeaten and through to the Copa America quarter-finals for the 14th consecutive CONMEBOL tournament.

Papu Gomez's delightful 10th-minute effort over onrushing Antony Silva extended Argentina's undefeated streak, while snapping a four-match winless drought against Paraguay on Monday.

Add seven clean sheets during an unbeaten run, dating back to the 2019 Copa America semi-finals, and it sounds wonderful for La Albiceleste in pursuit of a first major title since 1993.

This is not your usual Argentina, despite boasting a record six-time Ballon d'Or winner – Lionel Messi, who equalled Javier Mascherano's appearance record with his 147th cap – hellbent on claiming an elusive international trophy.

Aside from Gomez's delicate finish, there was not much to write home about. After a promising opening half, Argentina faded. A growing theme under head coach Scaloni.

Argentina ended the Group A contest with a total of eight shots (five from outside the box) – their second lowest figure during the Scaloni era, tied with the match against Ecuador in October 2020 and one more than they registered against Paraguay at the 2019 Copa America.

Paraguay controlled possession across the 90 minutes – 56.9 to 43.1 per cent, the first time in the last nine meetings with Argentina they had more ball possession. Fortunately for Scaloni's side, La Albirroja did not manage a shot on target.

At a time when Argentina was reeling following another early and unsuccessful World Cup campaign, ousted in the round of 16 at Russia 2018, Scaloni stepped into a hot seat so few were willing to take on.

The seven-time Argentina international provided stability when superstar captain Messi initially retired. Scaloni oversaw a run to the 2019 Copa America semi-finals – La Albiceleste settled for third.

Fast forward to this year and even amid a lengthy undefeated streak, there are growing questions over Scaloni, the style of football and Argentina's ability to put an end to 28 years of anguish.

While the football might not be so easy on the eye, it's the results that matter at the moment as Argentina build towards dethroning South American rivals Brazil on their own turf.

Lionel Scaloni said Argentina produced the "extra rage" they needed to end their run of draws with a 1-0 Copa America victory over rivals Uruguay on Friday.

Lionel Messi crossed for Guido Rodriguez to head in the 13th-minute winner for Argentina's first victory of this year's Copa America after their opening 1-1 draw with Chile.

Scaloni has come under pressure following Argentina's run of three draws, blowing a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Colombia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying along with a 1-1 home draw with Chile on the roar to Qatar 2022 earlier this month.

"I honestly believe that in the previous matches we also deserved to win, but due to small mistakes we were only able to draw," head coach Scaloni said during his post-match news conference.

"Today the team gave the extra rage so that they don't convert us and once we were winning we were able to withstand the opponent's attacks. Today we were good both in attack and defence."

Argentina – amid a 15-game unbeaten run – were strong defensively, having denied Uruguay any shots on target throughout the match, the second time it has occurred in a competitive game under Scaloni.

In attack, Messi was named man of the match for the second consecutive game, providing the assist for the decisive moment in the game.

"Messi and all his team-mates made a great effort," Scaloni said. "He speaks very well of the commitment of all the players and fills us with pride.

"They do it for the shirt of their country. This is going to be hard, but the way is this."

Real Betis midfielder Rodriguez was one of four changes to the Argentina starting XI from the side which drew with Chile and Scaloni was delighted with his display.

Argentina have scored 10 of their last 11 goals in the first half across World Cup qualifying and the Copa America. In this period, only Joaquin Correa, against Bolivia, has scored a goal in the second half.

"Guido was always with us and we have valued his commitment for a long time, with his way of training and his way of supporting his team-mates," Scaloni said. "Today he had his chance and he did not waste it."

Argentina are next in action against Paraguay in Brasilia on Sunday.

Argentina left Juan Foyth and Lucas Ocampos out of their Copa America squad as Lionel Scaloni finalised his plans for the tournament in Brazil.

Scaloni made a last-minute adjustment as Bayer Leverkusen forward Lucas Alario was ruled out by injury and River Plate rising star Julian Alvarez took his place, .

The omissions of Foyth, who on Friday sealed a move from Tottenham to Villarreal, and Sevilla winger Ocampos, may be held up to scrutiny later.

However, Scaloni chose a 28-man squad packed with pedigree as Argentina attempt to conquer the Copa America for the first time since 1993, with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Lautaro Martinez giving the Albiceleste a formidable forward line.

Argentina face Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia in Group B of the South American championship. They were due to be co-hosts of the tournament but COVID-19 factors saw it move to Brazil at late notice.

Alario had been included on the initial final squad list sent to organisers CONMEBOL, but he was eventually excluded due to the hamstring injury that forced him to miss the closing weeks of Leverkusen's season.

Alvarez, 21, did not feature on Argentina's provisional list of 50 players but was allowed to join the squad because of Alario's injury.

CONMEBOL said in a statement: "This Friday, June 11, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) informed CONMEBOL of the injury of Lucas Alario, a player included in the list of 28 summoned for the CONMEBOL Copa America 2021 that had been delivered on Thursday, June 10.

"Given this, the Argentine Football Association requested the replacement of said player and the inclusion in his place of Julian Alvarez, a footballer not included in the first instance in the preliminary list presented on June 1.

"Said request was approved by the CONMEBOL medical commission in accordance with the provisions of the regulations and after the delivery of Form 2 [substitution of injured players]."

Argentina squad for Copa America:

Franco Armani (River Plate), Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa), Agustin Marchesín (Porto), Juan Musso (Udinese); Gonzalo Montiel (River Plate), Nicolas Otamendi (Benfica), German Pezzella (Fiorentina), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Lucas Martínez Quarta (Fiorentina), Marcos Acuna (Sevilla), Lisandro Martínez (Ajax), Cristian Romero (Atalanta), Nahuel Molina Lucero (Udinese); Leandro Paredes (PSG), Guido Rodríguez (Real Betis), Giovani Lo Celso (Tottenham), Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen), Angel Di María (PSG), Rodrigo De Paul (Udinese), Alejandro Gomez (Sevilla), Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid), Nicolas Dominguez (Bologna); Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Lautaro Martinez (Inter), Joaquin Correa (Lazio), Julian Alvarez (River Plate), Sergio Aguero (Barcelona), Nicolas Gonzalez (Stuttgart).

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni says his side deserved all three points after conceding a stoppage-time equaliser to draw 2-2 away to Colombia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

La Albiceleste had raced to a two-goal lead inside the opening eight minutes but were pegged back by Colombia with substitute Miguel Borja firing in a 94th-minute header.

The result leaves Argentina in second with 12 points from their opening six qualifiers on the road to Qatar 2022, but six points adrift of CONMEBOL leaders Brazil.

"When you think it's all done, no, it's not," Scaloni told reporters post-game. "We're leaving with one point when we deserved all three. Argentina deserved to win.

"Up until the 94th minute, what we were doing was really good and the last play gave them a point, it wasn’t deserved.

"We deserved the three points. I have to congratulate the players because they played a good match in the heat on a difficult pitch against a good opponent."

Argentina did have numerous chances to seal the win including two shots from Lionel Messi which were thwarted by Colombia keeper David Ospina, while Nicolas Gonzalez hit the post in the first half.

Colombia made three half-time substitutions while Luis Muriel was brought on at the half-hour mark to chase down the deficit, with the Atalanta forward netting a 51st minute penalty.

Argentina's Juan Foyth made an error in the lead-up to Borja's late leveller from Juan Cuadrado's cross although Scaloni refused to criticize him specifically.

"It's individual errors not defensive," he said. "The defensive play of the team was perfect up until that play. It was a specific error and nothing more.

"It's the last play and it changes the entire match. The rest of the 94 minutes and a half were perfect."

Argentina turn their attention to the Copa America which is scheduled to commence on Sunday, with Scaloni's team starting their campaign on Monday against Chile in Rio de Janeiro.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni said La Albiceleste are preparing for the Copa America to go ahead amid uncertainty, though he still has concerns.

The Copa America is scheduled to get underway in Brazil on Sunday after CONMEBOL controversially removed Argentina and Colombia as co-hosts due to respective political and coronavirus issues.

Brazil were awarded hosting duties, despite being one of the country's worst hit by the COVID-19 health crisis, and Scaloni has already voiced his disapproval of CONMEBOL's decision.

Tite's Brazil are reluctant to host the showpiece South American tournament, with the squad set to shed more light following Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Paraguay.

Argentina are also gearing up for a World Cup qualifier away to Colombia before their scheduled Copa America opener against Chile on Monday.

"We know what everyone knows, for now it is being played and we are aware of that," Scaloni told reporters, with Argentina out to maintain their unbeaten record in qualifying on the road to Qatar 2022.

"Now we are focused on the game with Colombia and after this we will surely focus on what is coming."

"We wanted to base ourselves in our training camp, they authorised it and for us it is a great peace of mind," added Scaloni.

"I don't know what will happen after the playoff games are over, but it is very important for us to stay at home.

"What will happen from tomorrow I don't know, we are calm. But the worrying aspect is still there."

Lionel Messi was on target as Argentina drew 1-1 with Chile in Thursday's World Cup qualifying fixture.

Messi – who also struck the woodwork on more than one occasion – converted a first-half penalty before Alexis Sanchez restored parity for Chile.

On Messi, Scaloni said: "Messi's always marked by two or three people. We are planning on doing something which we have not been doing in the last games. Hopefully we can do it.

"We will have to see what Colombia does. They are the hosts, they just won in a convincing fashion and we will see if they have the same team. Messi being marked is something that we assume."

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni disapproved of CONMEBOL's decision to move the Copa America to Brazil, describing the situation as "alarming" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This year's Copa America – postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – had been due to be shared between Colombia and Argentina, though both countries were removed as co-hosts following respective political and coronavirus issues.

CONMEBOL confirmed the 2021 tournament will go ahead as planned, with Brazil taking over hosting duties in pursuit of back-to-back titles, despite being one of the country's worst hit by the COVID-19 health crisis.

As Argentina prepare to open the showpiece event in the scheduled curtain-raiser against Chile on June 13, Scaloni questioned the governing body's decision to strip Argentina of hosting rights.

"Some time ago people had been talking about the problems we have as a country to host the Copa America and the effort that the Government and the AFA were making to try to play it in Argentina," Scaloni told reporters ahead of Thursday's World Cup qualifier against Chile.

"Colombia had already gone down and in the end it was decided that it should not be done here for a health issue, but now it turns out that we will have to travel to Brazil and with that everything is said.

"Surely Brazil is the same or worse than us and from that place it was a difficult decision to assimilate, but this does not mean that we will have to go play and try to do our best.

"There are still many unknowns, accommodation, where we will train, our perspective changed a lot because before we were going to be on our camp, with all precautions, and now we are faced with this situation that is still alarming and worrying because it is not the ideal place."

Scaloni – who announced his starting XI for the qualifier against Chile, which is headlined by superstar captain Lionel Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria – added: "The issue of the virus and the pandemic is not something new, we are already immersed in this and it really is very difficult to carry it forward with training and day to day, but all the national teams are in the same conditions.

"You have to live with this in the most responsible way. It has never happened that two qualifying games are played and then the Copa America, before we had preparation games, but now it is all atypical and we have to face it in the best way and in due time."

The one-year postponement of the Copa America gave Argentina vital time as they sought to avoid squandering probably the most precious asset ever granted to any international team in football history.

A yawning gap remains in Lionel Messi's glittering collection of honours. At club level, the Barcelona superstar has won it all, won it again and won it some more just for good measure. For Argentina, he is yet to lift a major honour.

Rather than an international tournament, Messi spent the last close-season negotiating his next move – which ultimately meant staying in Catalonia. His contract is up again in 2021, but the legendary forward must also negotiate the rearranged Copa this time.

Realistically, this tournament and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar represent his final shots at glory for La Albiceleste, with the nagging sense his best chance to emulate the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona with a defining triumph at the highest level might already have passed him by.

 

THE GOLDEN GENERATION

Over recent years, Messi has frequently appeared wearied as a man carrying the weight of his team on his shoulders for club and country.

Of course, this was not always the case. At Barcelona he was the shimmering jewel in Pep Guardiola's slick and sublime masterpiece before starring as part of Luis Enrique's turbo-charged MSN forward line.

Argentina's more forlorn efforts of late make it easy to forget what a defining generation of talent Messi once spearheaded.

Any heavyweight football nation collecting back-to-back Olympic gold medals, as Argentina did in 2004 and 2008, would reasonably expect the senior honours to follow – with or without arguably the greatest of all time at their disposal.

Names from those podiums in Athens and Beijing trip off the tongue. Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago, Ever Banega, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero are all Olympic champions.

At the 2010 World Cup, the fairytale combination of Messi and the Messiah – the late Maradona inimitably entertaining but evidently ill-cast as head coach – fell to Germany in the quarter-finals.

Die Mannschaft also beat them in 2014 – this time as Mario Gotze scored the only goal in the final during extra time. Alejandro Sabella's steadying hand brought them to the brink of sporting immortality and Messi was named player of the tournament, despite some underwhelming showings by his own standards.

NEAR MISSES, RETIREMENT AND SHAMBLES

Gerardo Martino managed not to win a major trophy when he led Barcelona in 2013-14 and, unfortunately for Messi, history repeated during his tenure with the national team.

Gonzalo Higuain missed a glorious chance in the World Cup final and he and Banega erred from the spot as Chile won the 2015 Copa America in a penalty shoot-out.

Against the same opponents at the Copa America Centenario 12 months later, Messi himself failed amid further heartache from 12 yards.

As emotions ran high in the aftermath, the number 10 announced his retirement from international football, with rumours other stars would follow suit due to disaffection with the Argentine Football Association.

By the time Messi returned for a 3-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Brazil that November, Edgardo Bauza's tenure as head coach was already on the rocks.

Jorge Sampaoli replaced him and Argentina needed an utterly majestic hat-trick from their talisman away to Ecuador to snatch a place at Russia 2018.

Perhaps they shouldn't have bothered.

Having brought Argentina to their knees while in charge of Chile, Sampaoli inadvertently did the same again during a shambling turn ended by eventual champions France in the last 16. There was a near revolt after a group-stage thrashing from Croatia and the coach left with his reputation in tatters.

LIONEL, LIONEL AND LAUTARO

Star names such as Martino and Sampaoli not working out probably help the cause of the unheralded Lionel Scaloni, who emerged from the rubble of Russia to take temporary and then full charge.

The 2019 Copa America got off to a similarly inauspicious start, but they scrambled out of the group and were arguably a little unlucky to lose 2-0 to hosts and eventual winners Brazil in the semis.

A feisty third-place match against Chile was won 2-1 thanks to goals form Aguero and Paulo Dybala, despite Messi bizarrely getting sent for being repeatedly butted by Gary Medel.

An indignant post-match interview brought a four-game ban, although a more vocal Messi leading through words as well as deeds was a pleasing development. In his absence, 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Mexico and Ecuador suggested brighter times ahead with a younger core.

Goals in the early stages of World Cup qualifying this season have been slightly more sparse – six in four games – but Argentina have still taken 10 points to remain unbeaten, second to Brazil in the standings.

Lautaro Martinez has been involved in half of those qualifying goals (two goals, one assist) and has now firmly established himself as the number one option at centre-forward, where Argentina's surplus of riches makes their lack of reward so embarrassing.

Going slightly further back, since Scaloni first took charge, the Inter star has 11 goals in 20 games – averaging one every 120.3 minutes and outstripping his expected goals (xG) figure of 7.8. Messi has six goals at 193.7 minutes per goal from an xG of 8.0 over the same period.

European club form coming back home to the national team has not always been a given during the Messi years, as evidenced by that slightly more ordinary return, so it is encouraging to see Martinez scoring at a faster rate under Scaloni than he has to date during his 100-game Serie A career (37 goals at one every 172.4 minutes).

THE NEW GENERATION

Aguero – a regular until Martinez came to the fore – may still have a role to play in trying to right a journey of heartache he has charted alongside Messi in blue and white. But Scaloni has come to rely on new faces as he quietly shapes a team in his own image. Moulding the ramshackle embarrassment of three years ago into a compact and hard-working unit necessitated high-profile casualties.

A pair of substitute appearances in November were Di Maria's first international outings since being dropped during the Copa. Paulo Dybala is fit again but seemingly now no longer even a bench option in the coach's eyes.

Argentina's all-action midfield creator is now Udinese's Rodrigo de Paul, whose 122 completed dribbles led Serie A this season, while his 18 goal involvements (nine goals, nine assists) ranked joint-third among midfielders.

Di Maria's Paris Saint-Germain colleague Leandro Paredes has started alongside De Paul in each qualifier to date, and Giovani Lo Celso has two assists in just 159 minutes of international action this season.

Disappointingly, winger Nicolas Gonzalez has been dogged by thigh injuries since scoring twice in November. With a goal every 155.8 minutes in the Bundesliga this term, he had been one of those set to profit from the Copa's new date.

Selection has also been consistent in defence this season, but German Pezzella's ill-timed injury absence meant Lucas Martinez Quarta was the Fiorentina defender allowed to settle in the heart of the back line.

Pezzella – a stand-in captain for the national team not so long ago – remains the main man in Florence, playing 32 league games to Martinez's 21, yet his younger colleague averages more tackles (1.9), interceptions (2.4) and blocks (0.6) per 90 minutes.

It looks like a case of either/or next to Nicolas Otamendi and his frequent reversions to slapstick, although Atalanta duo Cristian Romero and Jose Luis Palomino are also both now in the mix.

Elsewhere, despite the new call-ups – Emiliano Buendia is another debut option but has been plying his trade in the Championship – Scaloni's reliance on a steady XI might hint at a lack of depth. When the Copa was delayed by 12 months, one of world football's heavyweights might have hoped for more than the development of Inter's second-best striker and a wealth of defensive options in the meantime.

Instead, the narrative remains frustratingly familiar: Argentina need Messi to fire.

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