DOING IT ALL Messi leads Argentina past Venezuela; U.S. next
By Frank Dell'Apa Soccer News Net Contributing Editor
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Lionel Messi made his first start in Copa America Centenario count, leading Argentina to a 4-1 win over Venezuela and scoring his 54th international goal before a 59,183 crowd at Gillette Stadium Saturday night.
Argentina, which will meet the U.S. in a semifinal match at NRG Stadium in Houston Tuesday, remained the only team with a perfect record in the tournament.
The fans came out for Messi, and he provided a show, orchestrating the Albiceleste’s pinpoint passing game, providing two assists, and tying Gabriel Batistuta for first place on the national team scoring list. Argentina, which has outscored opponents, 14-2, performed like the tournament favorites from the opening kickoff, Gonzalo Higuain scoring twice in the first half.
The “Messi” chants started in the opening minute, as Argentina took control from the outset. Venezuela appeared content to stay back and defend, conceding possession to the Albiceleste. But the Vinotinto’s defensive tactics failed as Messi lofted a ball for a Higuain one-timer past Dani Hernandez in the eighth minute. In the 22nd minute, Messi went down after a challenge from behind by Arquimedes Figuera in the penalty area, referee Roberto Garcia allowing play to continue as Messi remained down for several seconds, having landed on the ball. Venezuela attempted to retaliate, Jose Salomon Rondon’s shot blocked (25th minute), Alexander Gonzalez earning a free kick (27th). But in the 28th minute, a Figuera back pass was intercepted by Higuain, who easily dodged Hernandez, went into the penalty area on the left and finished for a 2-0 edge.
Venezuela had chances to cut the deficit, a Rondon header off a corner hitting the left post (39th) and Rolf Feltscher’s deflected shot tipped over the bar by Sergio Romero (41st). Then, Luis Seijas’ attempted chip on a penalty kick went directly to Romero. Josef Martinez earned the penalty after being taken down by Romero in the 42nd minute.
Argentina appeared on the verge of stretching the lead in the opening minute of the second half, Nicolas Gaitan breaking into the penalty area, Higuain failing to finish his centering pass. In the 52nd minute, Messi went down in front of the Argentina bench, coach Tata Martino and several players approaching the field, Garcia issuing a caution to Wilker Angel.
Messi upped the lead to 3-0 with his fourth goal of the tournament, finishing an interchange with Gaitan off a turnover in the 60th minute. With Argentina pressing high, Gaitan earned a turnover, fed Messi near the penalty arc, then took a return pass and centered for Messi to poke in a left-footer from the edge of the goal area.
Venezuela capitalized on a turnover, Rondon scoring on a glancing header in the 70th minute. But the Albiceleste stretched the lead to 4-1 as substitute Erik Lamela finished past a diving Hernandez, who tipped the shot with his right hand. Marcos Rojo set up the score, crossing from the left to Messi, who slipped a pass into the penalty area, Lamela one-timing a low shot.