Argentina didn’t play like the 2024 Copa America champions tonight — they barely played like winners of their quarterfinal match against Ecuador. Despite the seemingly positive result, Argentina are lucky to escape with their 1-0 draw. They were outdueled, outpassed, outmatched in intensity, technique, and more.

But, of course, it would be a typical Scaloni victory. A patient buildup, dominant possession, and a compact defense. It helped them win the 2021 Copa America the 2022 World Cup, and potentially, now the 2024 Copa America title.

Until it wasn’t. Kevin Rodriguez swooped in with one of the more memorable strikes of the tournament, connecting with a John Yeboah cross and finessing his header just enough to nestle it in the bottom left corner. Ecuador forced penalty kicks with minutes to spare and nearly won it with seconds left after a pair of dangerous counter-attacks.

And then, it was again. Emiliano Martinez showed up in penalties, as he always does. The Aston Villa stopper saves two of Ecuador’s four penalties, adding in some salacious celebrations while he’s at it. Nicolas Otamendi dominantly closes out the shootout. He blasts his penalty into the top left corner, wheeling off to celebrate with supporters in dominant fashion. This — not the refereeing controversies, not the comically small pitches — this is Copa America.

Before the game, there was doubt that Argentina’s most important piece in their Copa America repeat, Lionel Messi, would even show up. Messi missed Argentina’s 2-0 win over Peru on Saturday, and gaffer Lionel Scaloni marked the talismanic playmaker as day-to-day before the start.

Nonetheless, a not-fully-fit Messi returned to the starting eleven, along with an all-star roster of elite players. A lineup with the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Julián Alvarez, and Enzo Fernandez faced an Ecuador squad tipped to make a deep run in the tournament. They’d had trouble with them in a June friendly, narrowly winning 1-0. After Ecuador dominated Jamaica and frustrated CONCACAF heavyweight Mexico, they looked like an imposing team to face in the knockouts.

Argentina and Ecuador go back and forth

Surprisingly, it was Ecuador who started the game on the front foot. Brighton midfielder Jeremy Sarmiento got on the receiving end of a Moises Caicedo through ball, with Sarmiento putting his eye on the goal. Sarmiento then side-stepped past a dizzied Cristian Romero before taking on keeper Emiliano Martinez. However, Martinez smothered the ball to keep the game level.

There was a feeling that the half would end in a goal as the game got faster, more physical, and saw many chances. Kendry Paez and Angelo Preciado sent two shots in succession over the bar. Enzo Fernandez returned the favor after he saw his counter-attacking shot heroically blocked by promising defender Willian Pacho. As players racked up cards, threw arms, pointed fingers, and shoved others, the half crescendoed towards a fiery ending.

Argentina found its opener in the 35th minute through a Messi set-piece. How characteristic. Messi’s bending, inswinging corner met the head of midfielder Alexis Mac Allister. Mac Allister tipped it just enough to reach a lurking Lisandro Martinez at the back post, who easily tapped in the shot. The game completely opened after, with a cynical Ecuador suddenly attacking with guns blazing.

Despite Ecuador largely being the better team, striking directly thanks to their talent on the wings, Argentina had the advantage. It didn’t look like they would give up their hard-earned advantage any time soon, even if they hadn’t put in a convincing performance.

But, suddenly, merely 15 minutes after halftime, the tide changed. A Caicedo in-swinger connected with the head of Alan Franco, and Franco’s attempt rocketed into Rodrigo de Paul’s hand, conveniently stretched away from his body as he turned to block the shot. Unlucky, but it was only fair.

Despite the anger and bargaining from Martinez, the braided de Paul, and more, the referee stood firm. The 34-year-old Enner Valencia, who had stunned the world only two years ago with his performances at the World Cup, cocked his head, drew a strong breath, and began his runup.

He strikes the ball, sends Martinez completely the wrong way, and misses.

He misses.

Even Martinez can’t believe it — he leaps up, checks the net, and then celebrates wildly in front of a rabid Argentine supporters’ section. Valencia looks up to some invisible power, silently cursing it and rueing his poor luck.

Throughout the match, it surprisingly looked like Ecuador, not Argentina, was the stronger team. Although Argentina did sit back, playing cynically and wasting time, it seemed like Ecuador created more chances on the night. They looked especially solid on the right through Chelsea target Paez and Preciado.

They threw numbers down the flanks, seeking to overload Argentina’s defense, creating pockets of space everywhere. To an extent it worked. Although Ecuador found itself frustrated and unable to score, most of their chances came down the flanks.

It didn’t stop Ecuador from coming close to equalizing multiple times. Despite timewasting and contentious fouls, Ecuador troubled Martinez several times. Ángel Mena and Jordy Caicedo failed to make the most out of some solid opportunities. Ecuador circulated the ball beautifully and created several chances, but lacked the final product to finish their chances.

Then, again, the unthinkable happened. With one last chance in stoppage time to bring the game level and force a penalty shootout, After John Yeboah lofts a last-ditch cross into the box, Kevin Rodriguez powers through the 18, leaps into the air, and flicks an incredible header past his marker. It beats Martinez, bouncing narrowly into the right corner.

Frenzied celebrations commence. Beers are thrown, dark blue confetti is popped, and manager Néstor Lorenzo hops up and down before embracing his backroom staff. After a lengthy VAR check, officials rule everything is fine and the goals are fair. After a chaotic three minutes of back-and-forth running, the game finally reached penalties.

Thrilling shootout ends with Argentina on top

First up to the penalty spot was Lionel Messi, who had a muted night and struggled to get involved. Messi fooled keeper Alexander Dominguez with a clever Panenka, but his attempt unfortunately met the crossbar. It capped off a frustrating night.

Mena took his penalty next, but Martinez came up with an incredible save to keep the shootout level at 0-0. Alvarez scored the first penalty of the shootout. Dominguez guessed the right way, but Alvarez’s shot was too high and too wide for him to reach. Alvarez wheeled off in celebration, evidently relieved and optimistic.

After Alan Minda saw his shot blocked — and some Martinez hip thrusts — Mac Allister took his penalty. Dominguez guessed the wrong way, but even if he dove the right way, MacAllister’s penalty was still spot-on. He tucks the ball right in the bottom right corner. Chef’s kiss.

Colombia’s John Yeboah rocketed his shot to the top right corner, sending Martinez completely the wrong way. However, Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel sent Dominiguez the wrong way. He playfully celebrates, leaving Ecuador needing a goal, a save, and a goal in the next three events.

After Jordy Caicedo narrowly beats out Martinez and converts his penalty, it’s Argentina veteran Nicolas Otamendi who steps up with the game on the line. He stutters, drags his foot, and takes the penalty, neatly tucking it into the bottom left corner. Dominiguez has no chance!

The Houston crowd yells louder than it did for Martinez with his opener or Rodriguez with his equalizer. Even though Ecuador played the better match and was merely inches away from advancing, Argentina played their typical style of play, kept their tempo, and enjoyed the rewards.

After their win over Ecuador, Argentina will face either Venezuela or Canada in the semifinals. Ecuador will play their next match in September, a World Cup qualifying match against Brazil.