Some people are making a fuss about the fact that Lionel Messi has 76 goals for Argentina, just one fewer than Pele’s total for Brazil, which is the record for South American male players. Others are making a fuss about the prospect of Copa America glory propelling Messi to another world player of the year award. The man himself, however, is unlikely to be concerned with either topic.
Messi has only ever seen individual awards as the consequence of successful work in a collective context. It is all about the team and now, more than at any other time in his career, the team is Argentina (and not just because, strictly speaking, he does not have a club after his Barcelona contract expired).
He could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel on international football after the shambles that was Argentina’s 2018 World Cup campaign, which ended at the round-of-16 stage. Instead, he has gone all in.
For years there was an air of aloofness around Messi, with his self-contained nature said to intimidate other Argentina players. But beginning with the 2019 Copa, he has been different; a vocal, encouraging captain and leader, integrated into the team both as a human being and as a footballer.
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Messi dovetails with midfielders Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo De Paul and is developing a relationship with centre-forward Lautaro Martinez. Argentina are a better team than at any time since the 2016 Copa America Centenario and, having reached the latest edition’s semifinals, are two games away from a first senior title since 1993. Messi, meanwhile, is two games away from his first senior international title.
Both games will be very difficult, however. Argentina must first get past Colombia on Tuesday and if they do, unless there is a major shock in the other semifinal, will take on Brazil four days later in Rio. In that scenario, the Albiceleste will have to beat the last two teams to have beaten them: Two years ago, Colombia and Brazil earned 2-0 wins in the Copa group stage and semifinals respectively.
Against Colombia, Messi and Co. are in for an epic battle with defensive midfielder Wilmar Barrios, one of the best man markers in the game. There is something of the young Javier Mascherano in the 27-year-old, who is quick across the ground, tough in the tackle, crisp in his passing and loves nothing more than a battle.
The two nations met in a World Cup qualifier in Colombia just before the Copa began. Amazingly, Barrios started on the bench and Colombia quickly caved, conceding two goals in the opening eight minutes. They had to chase the game, and risked leaving themselves open to the counter, but Barrios came on at half-time.
While he dealt with the danger by to organizing things in front of his centre-backs, Colombia could concentrate on attack and levelled the scores with the last attack of the game, claiming a vital point on the road to Qatar 2022. Argentina’s defence buckled in the end, and Colombia are set up for a repeat performance on Tuesday.
Coach Reinaldo Rueda appears to have given up on having a playmaker, with the best that Edwin Cardona can hope for is a run off the bench if Colombia are chasing the game. As such, Barrios will be joined in the middle by another defensive midfielder, while Juan Guillermo Cuadrado will return after suspension to carry out his double role on the right, coming inside to mark and going outside as a winger.
Luis Diaz will attack from the left and Duvan Zapata will lead a two man front line, seeking to bully an defence that looked in danger of leaking against Ecuador in the quarterfinals, when a 3-0 Argentina win was slightly deceptive. They have only scored three times in five games, but Colombia will be quick, direct and physical.
In the other last-four game, on Monday, host nation Brazil will expect to have fewer obstacles against a Peru side lacking the outstanding Andre Carrillo, who was somewhat harshly sent off in the quarterfinal after playing a heroic role against Paraguay.
There is considerable recent history between Brazil and Peru. Five years ago in Foxborough, Mass., a 1-0 win for Peru in the Copa Centenario group stage five years ago condemned Brazil to a humiliating elimination and brought down the curtain on the second reign as coach of Dunga, paving the way for Tite to take charge,
Peru have since won again on American soil — a 1-0 September 2019 friendly triumph in Los Angeles — but the spoils in competitive games have gone to Brazil, who won two World Cup qualifiers in Lima and have three wins in Copa America play: 5-0 in the group phase and 3-1 in the final two years ago, as well as — most recently — a 4-0 mauling in this tournament’s first round.
In the absence of Carrillo, it is hard to see how the Peruvians can stop that run of defeats, not least because Brazil are on the bounce from a disappointing quarterfinal display, where Tite clearly picked the wrong team against Chile.
His 4-4-2, with Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison wide and Neymar and Roberto Firmino central, left the team outnumbered in midfield — the formation is more suited to attacking games — but the coach’s half-time introduction of an extra attacking midfielder immediately solved the problem when the substitute, Lucas Paqueta, scored the game’s only goal.
Moments later, Gabriel Jesus was sent off and his absence through suspension should make it easier to accommodate Paqueta from the kickoff on Monday night, when Peru’s biggest ally would seem to be the deplorable state of the pitch at Rio de Janeiro’s Nilton Santos stadium.
Tite pleaded that another venue be found for the semifinal, to no avail. CONMEBOL have been spooked by the poor playing surfaces, though, and the Maracana has been relaid ahead of Saturday’s final, in the hope of producing a pitch worthy of a great occasion featuring Neymar and Messi, or maybe even Zapata.