Copa América: Messi and Álvarez fire Argentina past Canada and into final

Copa América: Messi and Álvarez fire Argentina past Canada and into final

Lionel Messi’s first goal at this edition of Copa América, and his 14th in the tournament overall, sealed Argentina’s 2-0 semi-final victory over Canada in front of more than 80,000 fans at a hot and humid MetLife Stadium on Tuesday night.

The Argentina captain deflected an Enzo Fernández shot into the net from close range early in the second half to seal his team’s place in Sunday’s final. Messi’s goal added to a first-half Julián Álvarez strike against the run of play, which curtailed a spirited opening from Jesse Marsch’s side.

La Albiceleste will take on Uruguay or Colombia in the final at the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium. The second semi-final takes place in Charlotte on Wednesday night.

Argentina, the heavy tournament favourites, were much improved over their quarter-final win against Ecuador – when Emi Martínez was once again needed to get his team through a penalty shootout. However, a sterner test will need to be passed for Lionel Scaloni’s team if the world champions are to reassert their dominance over the Americas.

It was the Canadians who had the better of the opening exchanges, on a strangely sandy and uneven surface. The underdogs’ crisp passing, movement and superior running power manufactured several promising attacks. Nashville SC forward Jacob Shaffelburg might have done better with shooting opportunities on two occasions within the first 10 minutes.

Argentina, by comparison, were less energetic and ponderous in possession. Messi fired just wide from 18 yards for his team’s only effort on goal during the opening forays.

So, it was out of not-a-lot that Argentina took the lead on 22 minutes through Álvarez. The Manchester City forward latched on to Rodrigo De Paul’s through-ball and evaded the desperate challenge of Moïse Bombito before scraping the ball through the legs of Maxime Crépeau, Canada’s shootout hero in the quarters.

The goal subdued the Canadians’ confident and fast-paced start. Their high intensity pressing evaporated in the minutes before half-time on a sweaty New Jersey evening, yet the prolific Jonathan David might have restored parity in first-half stoppage time after a poked effort from a long throw was blocked by Martínez.

Argentina started the second period assertively and they were quickly rewarded when Messi got the slightest of touches to divert Fernández’s effort past Crépeau in the 51st minute. It was his 14th goal in 38 Copa América games and 109th in 186 caps for the national side. Messi looked brighter and fitter than in the quarter-final, when he had only 32 touches (his fewest since 2011 in a full competitive game for Argentina, per Opta) and also missed in the shootout.

Surprisingly, he also completed the full 90 minutes, which allayed fears about the adductor injury that saw him rested for the group stage game in Miami against Peru. While Messi stayed on to the delight of the fans in attendance, another Argentina great, Ángel Di María, was withdrawn, safe in the knowledge his last game before retiring from international football will be Sunday’s final.

Canada continued to chase the game gallantly, even when star player Alphonso Davies was forced to depart with an apparent injury with 20 minutes left. Tani Oluwaseyi could have scored twice in two minutes in the match’s final stages, but squandered both opportunities; first shooting too close to Martínez and then heading wide with the goal gaping.

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The defeat ended Canada’s impressive progress at the tournament – although they’ll play for third place on Saturday night. When these two sides met in the tournament opener – a comfortable, if imperfect 2-0 win for Argentina last month – few envisioned a semi-final rematch.

However, Canada proved themselves to be the class of Concacaf by recovering to progress past Chile and Peru in the group before earning a last-four berth via a shootout win over Venezuela.

It was a testament to the rapid progress under American coach Marsch, who led Canada into a major tournament semi-final in just his seventh game in charge.

This week, Marsch recalled attending Italy’s semi-final win at the same location during the 1994 World Cup at a time when he was firing in the goals 50 miles away for Princeton University.

US Soccer officials, amid their messy coaching quagmire and just two years from co-hosting the World Cup in 2026, might have watched Canada’s progress at this tournament, with a less capable squad, and wondered “what if?”