CONCACAF: Argentina tops Ecuador in shootout to reach Copa semis

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Argentina didn’t play a perfect match, far from it, but when it comes to penalty kicks, the team seems invincible again as a record 16th Copa America championship becomes closer to reality.

With Lionel Messi back in the lineup but having an up-and-down match in Houston on Thursday, defending champion Argentina advanced to the semifinals, downing Ecuador 4-2 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 tie through regulation.

Nicolas Otamendi scored in the top of the fifth round to seal the victory.

“I did not enjoy this. I think it’s not enjoyable when you win in this way,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. “Of course we are happy, but I didn’t enjoy this victory.”

There is no extra time in Copa America until the final, so the match went directly to the penalty shootout.

Messi opened the penalties with a chip that struck the crossbar and went over the net. However, Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez stopped the first two Ecuador shooters, Angel Mena and Alan Minda.

“Even after Leo’s miss and with all that means for the team, it is very important that our goalkeeper came up clutch,” Scaloni said.

Argentina also won the 2022 World Cup on penalties against France, having defeated the Netherlands in a shootout during the quarterfinals. A year earlier, Argentina defeated Colombia on penalties in the Copa America semifinals en route to prevailing in that event.

Messi sat out Argentina’s 2-0 win over Peru on Saturday in the final group match because of a right groin injury sustained in the previous match vs. Chile on June 25.

Scaloni seemed hesitant afterward to discuss Messi’s performance.

“If the team plays well and everyone performs at a good level, it’s OK,” Scaloni said. “We don’t want to analyze it in individual talent versus collective performance.

“I think he was feeling OK. We asked him for the last time, four minutes before the end. And well, we have reached the semis. And given the … level of performance of every national team, I think it’s a great achievement.”

The shootout was necessitated after Kevin Rodriguez tied it for Ecuador in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. He headed home the ball from about 10 yards out after a cross by John Yeboah.

Ecuador came tantalizingly close to securing the upset before penalties. In the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time, Jordy Caicedo barreled down the center of the box and put an open header outside the right post.

“There are things that were lacking, areas in which you don’t perform as well as you wanted, but the quarterfinals had us playing against the most difficult opponent,” Ecuador coach Felix Sanchez said. “I think that we delivered well and we have shown that the team can compete against any opponent, regardless of the result.”

The Rodriguez goal came nearly 30 minutes after Ecuador squandered a chance at a tying goal when Enner Valencia missed a penalty kick.

After Lisandro Martinez scored in the 35th minute, Valencia was given the opportunity from the spot in the 62nd minute when Rodrigo De Paul was called for a handball on a header by Alan Franco.

Valencia had Emiliano Martinez going the other way but rolled his shot weakly off the left post.

“He’s the captain, and he took the penalty because he was feeling confident enough, but he missed. That happened,” Sanchez said. “That happens in football, and I think that in many other areas of the game he was able to contribute with the team.

“Of course, we’re all very sad, and he might be sad because (of the) missed penalty, but we are really glad to have him.”

Argentina will play in the semifinals on Tuesday in East Rutherford, N.J. The opponent will be either Venezuela or Canada, who face off on Friday in Arlington, Texas.

After barely touching the ball in the first 25 minutes, Messi made an impact 10 minutes later. He did not get an assist on the Lisandro Martinez goal, but he factored in the result, nonetheless.

His corner kick from the right side was headed at the near post by Alexis Mac Allister to an unmarked Lisandro Martinez at the left frame for a header that landed a foot across the goal line.

–Field Level Media

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