HOUSTON • Venezuela had a plan. It was a tactical approach, designed specifically to take Lionel Messi and the other dangerous Argentinian attackers out of the game by applying forward pressure and forcing their rivals to make long, hopeful passes.
It worked - for about seven minutes.
But in the next minute, Messi conjured the kind of technical genius that compels most observers to call him the best football player in the world, artfully lifting a perfect 15-metre pass to Gonzalo Higuain.
With one strike of his right boot, Higuain converted it into a goal, the first in Argentina's 4-1 victory over Venezuela on Saturday in their Copa America Centenario quarter-final.
In that decisive moment, like so many others experienced by opponents hoping to stop Messi, all of Venezuela's carefully conceived defensive tactics were laid to waste.
"They have that stroke of genius that changes all your schemes," Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel said. "They had an incredible pass from Messi and they scored."
In recent months, the Argentina captain has produced such passes rather too frequently, and now it is the United States' turn to find a way to suppress them.
The home team earned a spot in this morning's (Singapore time) semi-final at the NRG Stadium by beating Ecuador, but awaiting them is Messi, Argentina's mesmerising dribbling, passing, shooting and scoring virtuoso.
"This is special," US coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Absolutely, it's special to play against this type of players. When you get the opportunity to play against one of the biggest players in the world, you want to raise your game, you want to enjoy it."
In recent years, the US have faced several top teams, but none have posed an attacking threat quite like Argentina's.
Along with the Barcelona forward, the South Americans have Javier Mascherano, Angel di Maria (when healthy), Sergio Aguero and particularly Higuain, Argentina's penetrating No. 9, who scored twice against Venezuela.
Spend too much time focusing on either Messi or Higuain, and the other could act decisively.
"We have two strikers who are really exceptional," Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said. "We have two No. 9s and we proceed with what we feel is best."
Martino watched Venezuela hack Messi down several times in the quarter-final, adding that the US would certainly use every possible means to stop him.
"I just hope that every possible way is a legal way," the Argentina coach said.
Klinsmann showed his team video-scouting reports of Argentina, and said that his players needed to add 10 to 15 per cent more to produce an upset today.
But the Argentinians were not infallible, he added. They have not won a major tournament in over 20 years.
"You guys are probably worrying more about Messi than we are," US captain Michael Bradley said to reporters.
"Very good player. That's also probably an understatement. It's still a soccer game with 11 of their guys against 11 of our guys."
NEW YORK TIMES
UNITED STATES V ARGENTINA
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