Copa America 2019

Argentina are not underdogs

Lautaro Martinez's back-heel flick after just 10 minutes into their quarter-final against Venezuela paved the way for Argentina's 2-0 victory at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
Lautaro Martinez's back-heel flick after just 10 minutes into their quarter-final against Venezuela paved the way for Argentina's 2-0 victory at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Despite an out-of-form Messi, La Albiceleste will be a threat for Brazil in upcoming s-final

RIO DE JANEIRO • Argentina captain Lionel Messi believes there are no favourites when his side play arch-rivals Brazil in a mouthwatering Copa America semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

They beat Venezuela 2-0 at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium on Friday, with goals from Lautaro Martinez and Giovani lo Celso, for their best performance yet in a tournament that began with 2-0 loss to Colombia followed by a 1-1 draw with Paraguay.

"It's difficult to give a favourite between Argentina and Brazil, even more so in this Copa America where anyone can beat anyone," said Messi, 32.

"We respect them, we know what Brazil represent."

Brazil also struggled to make the last four, needing penalties to beat Paraguay 4-3 after a goal-less draw in Porto Alegre on Thursday.

"We're in good form to take on Brazil, but we'll have to be very focused," said Messi, who admitted that he is yet to perform to his expectations.

As a team, though, he described their performance as "complete".

"Defensively we didn't have any problems and the team were very solid at all times," he added. "We didn't leave them any spaces.

"We were very united and waited for the opportunities to counter quickly."

After carrying Argentina on his back so many times, the five-time winner of Fifa's Footballer of the Year award could be forgiven for having an off-day and not looking like his old self.

Argentina's all-time top scorer (68) often loses out to 1986 World Cup-winning captain Diego Maradona in debates over who is the country's best player - owing to his failure to inspire his nation to a trophy despite reaching four finals in major tournaments.

Against Venezuela, Messi, who scored 51 goals in all competitions for his club Barcelona last season, looked rusty, slow and the least likely to conjure up a match-winning moment. His passing was sloppy, his shots were frequently blocked and he rarely managed to beat defenders as he usually does with nonchalant ease.

In four Copa games in Brazil, he has scored only once, from the penalty spot, and has not provided any assists.

Coach Lionel Scaloni did not want to be drawn on his talisman's poor game but said his presence alone is good for the team.

He said: "Messi's contribution on the pitch is essential.

"If you could see what he gives us in the dressing room, you'd think differently. I assure you it's great to have him here.

"All there is to say about Leo is he's the best in the world."

If Brazil are to lift a ninth Copa crown, they may have to exorcise their demons at the site of one of the Selecao's most harrowing defeats on a football field, where they were thrashed 7-1 by eventual champions Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals.

This will be their first return to the Mineirao Stadium in a major competition since that day.

Chelsea winger Willian insisted: "With regards to memories of the 7-1, we're very calm about that. It's in the past, it was a long time ago.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 30, 2019, with the headline 'Argentina are not underdogs'. Print Edition | Subscribe