The tension was almost too much for Argentina’s veteran players to take — they have traumatic memories of penalty shootouts in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016.
Had Colombia won the shootout, then the match would go down in the records as a draw, and Argentina would retain an unbeaten run that stretches back two years. But that would have been not the slightest consolation to Messi and Co., with the star No. 10 searching for his first senior title with the national team, and Argentina aiming to end 28 years of hurt. They have won no senior silverware since the Copa America of 1993.
Coach Lionel Scaloni’s first competitive game in charge was also against Colombia — a dismal 2-0 defeat in the opening match of the 2019 Copa. It brought a quick death to his early idea of play. Inspired by world champions France, Scaloni wanted a team of quick transitions. But he ended up with a side stretched all over the pitch and picked off by the Colombians. It was a model of play that made little sense in a side featuring an aging Messi. From that low point, Scaloni’s side have kept improving, making strides towards an idea that was very clear in the first few minutes of this encounter in Brasilia.
Messi, 34, is now neatly housed in a circuit of passing involving midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso, and is developing a relationship with centre-forward Lautaro Martinez. He had already come close to setting up a goal for Martinez when another chance quickly came along. Lo Celso slipped a ball into the right channel of the penalty area, Messi turned inside and laid back for Martinez to sweep inside the far corner. It was Argentina’s 11th goal of the competition — every single one of them have involved Messi.
In every game of the tournament Argentina have made a fast start. And every time they have found it hard to sustain. The same dynamic revealed itself once more, as Colombia — physical and direct — forced their way back into contention.
Just before the Copa the teams met in a World Cup qualifier in Colombia. Argentina raced into a two goal lead. Colombia piled on the pressure and ended up equalising with the final attack of the game. Playing only his second match for his country, Emiliano Martinez did not even reach half time — carried off after a nasty clash with giant centre-back Yerry Mina. On Tuesday, a collision with the substantial form of striker Duvan Zapata laid him low once more. Thankfully for Argentina, this time he was fit to continue — although he could do nothing about Colombia’s equaliser on the hour.
Ale Moreno explains how Brazil was able to defeat Peru in the Copa America semifinal and looks ahead to the title match.
Coach Reinaldo Rueda had completely rejigged his side at half-time, making three substitutions and changing the formation. Instead of 4-4-2, he now lined up his men in a much bolder 4-3-3, with attacking full-backs, plenty of pace and width — plus playmaker Edwin Cardona to add some much needed subtlety. Cardona split the defence from deep with a pass that allowed excellent left winger Luis Diaz to outpace German Pezzella — a distinct lack of pace at the heart of the Argentine defence has been a long running problem — and open up his body to skip in a right footed shot inside the far post.
It was Argentina’s turn to react. On came Angel Di Maria to cut in from wide on the right, and with De Paul going to the other flank Argentina switched from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, seeking to win the central midfield battle and give Messi a platform from which to tip the balance.
Di Maria was immediately a lively presence. He latched on to a loose Colombia pass to draw the keeper and set up Lautaro Martinez, but the outstanding Wilmar Barrios got back to clear the shot off the line. Then Di Maria slipped Messi on the left side of the penalty area. Messi turned and shot, David Ospina was beaten but the ball came back off the inside of the near post and rebounded to safety. Was Messi carrying an eternal curse with his national team? With time running out he came up with a delightful chip that gave left-back Nico Tagliafico a chance at the far post. Tagliafico stretched but could not get clean contact and the ball went wide. And late in the day it appeared to dawn on Scaloni that penalties would be needed. He rushed to introduce Sergio Aguero for the shootout, but before he could come on the referee’s whistle sounded and the ebb and flow came to a close.
If it were a boxing match then Argentina could claim that their late flurry would give them the verdict on points. But such considerations have no place in tournament football — and nor did the fact that the Colombians had only managed one victory in their six Copa games. It all came down to penalties.
As the Spanish found earlier on Tuesday, it is hard to win two consecutive shootsouts, not least because the opposing keeper has had a recent chance to study where the kicks are likely to go. Colombia centre-backs Davinson Sanchez and Mina both hit to the keeper’s left — just as they had against Uruguay on Saturday. That time they scored, this time Emiliano Martinez was waiting for them. And when he dived left once more to block Cardona’s shot it was all over.
Empty stadiums have rarely seen celebrations as intense as those of the Argentina players and coaching staff. They have the possibility of winning a title — and well all have the certainty of a Brazil vs. Argentina clash on Saturday night.