A pitch-invader sprinted onto the surface and headed straight for Lionel Messi. Reaching the Argentine star, who became his country’s all-time top scorer here, he hit the deck and bowed down several times at his feet. He was the only man who got close to Messi all night, and he spoke for the stadium.
The No 10’s gravity-defying free-kick sent Argentina flying into the Copa America Centenario final, and Messi set up goals for Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain as well, pulling the strings as he closes in on the title which will make his legend undeniable.
The USA were forced into several changes by suspensions to key players Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya, who had started every game thus far, but it wasn’t the reason they were taken to pieces by Argentina. No – that was the distance in quality between the teams.
From start to finish this was Messi’s game. In the fourth minute he played a superb chipped pass into the box which confused the USA backline and left goalkeeper Brad Guzan without a clue what to do.
Lavezzi ghosted in and, in an ocean of space, headed the ball over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. The NRG stadium exploded. Argentina fans celebrating wildly, US supporters awed by Messi’s pass.
Almost everything positive came through the Barcelona No 10. In the eighth minute he fired over, then eight minutes later sailed past three players before Guzan fielded his strike from the edge of the box.
The next time Messi ran at the United States’ defence, it ended up in a goal. Chris Wondolowski took him out on the edge of the box and picked up a yellow card for his trouble. Which was only just beginning.
Messi placed the ball and stared at Guzan’s goal. The space was to the left, the stopper almost inviting him to put it on that side. But never one to shirk a challenge, Messi launched a simply unstoppable free-kick into the top right corner.
It was one of the very best goals of his career, a fitting way to surge past Gabriel Batistuta as the country’s leading goal scorer. Batigol has 54, which Messi equalled in the previous round agains.
That effectively killed the match as a contest, although there was plenty of action for the sell-out crowd to enjoy in the second period, starting with Higuain notching the third goal for his country.
Having missed a good chance in the first half when through on goal, it looked like he’d repeated the feat when Guzan made a good stop after Lavezzi cunningly put him in one-on-one. Higuain collected the rebound and rolled it home, relieved more than anything.
The biggest scare Argentina had was when Lavezzi tumbled over the advertising hoardings and fell awkwardly, soon replaced by Erik Lamela. Tata Martino had surprisingly picked the forward over Spurs’ winger to replace Nicolas Gaitan, but it paid off in style, with Lavezzi one of the biggest threats until his substitution.
Further chances followed, with Messi teeing up club team-mate Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia on the right of the area, but both failed with their chances.
Borussia Dortmund’s 17-year-old midfielder Christian Pulisic had a good opportunity at the other end but fluffed his lines, chasing back after the ball and ending up on his hands and knees. It was symbolic of the US in this clash, chasing shadows by the end, listening to ‘Ole!’ chants as Argentina knocked the ball around.
Messi should have scored another himself as the game closed out, his low effort pushed out by Guzan, but he turned provider instead, soaring clear of the defence and squaring for Higuain to knock into the empty net to end the rout.
It was a comprehensive thrashing, with the USA not creating one chance of note – although this tournament will still be counted as a successful endeavour for them – while Argentina have now reached their third final in three years.
The 2014 World Cup and Copa America 2015 finals were crushing disappointments, but surely, on this form, they can’t be beaten again. Especially with Messi playing like this. ‘God mode,’ remarked one spectator, after one, almost-titillating dribble. He wasn’t far wrong.