Messi pulls strings as Argentina start Copa America defence with comfortable win

Argentina vs Canada, Copa America 2024
Argentina vs Canada, Copa America 2024 (PC: Copa America/X)

“The challenge with Messi is not just his quality but his ability to kind of move around in the game,” said Jesse Marsch, Canada’s American coach who was once in charge at Leeds United, on the eve of his team’s Copa America opener at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. “He doesn’t just show up in the same places all the time. Obviously, anytime he gets on the ball, the way that he can start to create combinations and really provide confidence and poise and quality for the team is very unique, right? This is what makes him the best player to ever play the game.”

Those words came back to haunt him with Messi, who turns 37 on June 24, very much at the heart of a competent Argentine display that gave them a 2-0 victory. With Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Lille’s Jonathan David – two of the most coveted young talents in the game – in Canada’s ranks, no one was expecting an Argentina romp, and so it proved, with Marsch’s side very much in the game until a late second goal from Lautaro Martinez, who had replaced Julian Alvarez, scorer of the opening goal.

The Messi threat was apparent as early as the tenth minute, when he was sent clear by a long ball from Leandro Parades, only to clip his shot narrowly wide as the linesman’s flag went up for offside. Not long after, Messi turned prompter, releasing Alvarez out wide. But when the cross was whizzed across the box, there was no one there to turn it in.

Alexis Mac Allister warmed Maxime Crepeau’s palms with a header from Rodrigo de Paul’s pass, but the best chance of the half arguably fell to Canada, when Cyle Larin crossed to Antunes Eustaquio. Emi Martinez produced a superb reflex save to keep his team on level terms.

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Argentina in Copa America 2024
Argentina in Copa America 2024 (PC: X)

After the break, Argentina finally found a way, as Messi scooped a pass into the area. Mac Allister got there a fraction of a second before Crepeau, and was taken out, but Alvarez was on hand to drive in the ball that broke to him at the corner of the six-yard box.

Argentina constantly, often, used the long ball to get past Canada’s high line, and midway through the second half, Messi streaked clear after a Canadian attack had broken down. Crepeau, outstanding all night, saved, and Derek Cornelius was on hand to head the rebound clear.

The big second-half scare for the Argentines came in the 70th minute when Jacob Shaffelburg, a second-half sub, tumbled in the area. After a lengthy delay, VAR decided the contact was outside the box. There was also plenty of anxiety when Messi went down after a robust tackle from Moise Bambito.

But after the prayers turned to cheers and he was back on his feet, he made Canada pay. The pass rolled into Martinez’s path was perfection itself. Martinez, the Internazionale striker who was a 76th-minute sub for Alvarez, didn’t even have to break his stride before tucking the ball away.

He was only the eighth Argentine to get to 25 international goals, and the last few minutes were played out in an atmosphere of celebration as Argentina’s title defence began just as they would have wanted it to.

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