Even before the droves of Argentina and Venezuela fans descended upon Foxborough, Massachusetts Saturday night for the Copa America Centenario quarter-final, many people were expecting a comfortable victory for Argentina. So, when Gonzalo Higuain scored the game’s opening goal after just eight minutes, things seemed to be going according to plan.
The Napoli frontman doubled Argentina’s lead a mere twenty minutes later after a lapse of judgment in the Venezuela defense allowed him to intercept an errant back pass and finish into the empty net. It seemed like business as usual for La Albiceleste, until Sergio Romero took out Venezuela’s Josef Martinez for an obvious penalty.
The call was indisputable, as even Romero himself threw up his hands to beg forgiveness from the fans and his teammates. However, Luis Seijas bailed him out with an absolutely dreadful Panenka penalty that he chipped into the waiting arms of the incredulous Argentina shot-stopper.
Going into the halftime break a goal down and with momentum on their side would have been ideal for La Vinotinto, but Seijas was unable to take advantage of the opportunity; something manager Rafael Dudamel lamented in his post-game press conference. “When you play against an adversary like this, any mistake you make becomes a sin. It’s something they do not forgive, they know how to take advantage and then they kill you.”
And so they did. Lionel Messi was at his mesmerizing best, assisting Higuain’s first goal with an outrageous ball and getting on the scoresheet for Argentina’s third after a one-two with Nicolas Gaitan allowed him to dispatch Venezuela’s Dani Hernandez with a simple tap-in through the hapless keeper’s legs.
Messi then assisted the fourth and final goal to substitute Erik Lamela, who put the icing on a result that was never in doubt. His manager Tata Martino made no secret about how he has planned the team’s tactics around the Argentina talisman. “We were able to avoid leaking passes and I thought we found [Lionel] every time we recovered a ball. He is able to start attacks with great speed.”
The Albiceleste’s speed of attack had Venezuelan defenders backpedaling straight from the opening whistle, and it’s understandable that Dudamel has such high respect for last night’s adversary. “We had a tactical approach for when you play against a team like this, but they have that stroke of genius that changes all of your schemes. We were facing the best team in the tournament and we never hid.”
Despite the loss, the Venezuela manager feels that his side’s experience in the tournament was still extremely valuable and he went on to praise the atmosphere of the Copa America citing it as a major reason for his team’s successes. “All this good work we’ve done in this tournament will open up a lot of doors for our national team. I want to congratulate the organizers of this tournament because we have been treated very well. Everything has been impeccable from every point of view. The best proof is the crowd. 50,000 60,000 per game – this has allowed us to enjoy a great level of play.”
Tata Martino, whose side next face off against tournament hosts the United States in the semi-final, insists his side are wary of every opponent who makes it this far in a challenging competition. “As I always say, any team that gets to this stage in the tournament, like the US, they get there because of their own merit. They have three players who won’t be able to play because of yellow cards, but the fact that this team has gotten this far and the fact that they are a home team means that they are a rival we need to be very careful with.”
Surely Martino’s side are the favorites, but he’s not taking any opponent for granted. Still, Argentina are the world’s #1 team and few can see them stumbling on the way to winning the 2016 Copa America.
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