Lionel Messi finally secured his holy grail this weekend as Argentina claimed a 1-0 win over bitter rivals Brazil at the Maracana to lift the Copa America.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has cleaned up time and again with club side Barcelona but major honours at international level had repeatedly proved elusive.

Germany beat the Albiceleste 1-0 after extra time in the 2014 World Cup final, after which Messi was named player of the tournament – a much disputed award given he appeared to be shadow of himself during the closing knockout stages.

The same could not be said when the 34-year-old lifted the individual gong in Rio. Although he was not Argentina's standout performer in the final, Messi was a man on a mission who would not be denied throughout the competition.

Here, we take a game-by-game look at how the great man inspired a long-awaited triumph.

 

Group stage: Argentina 1-1 Chile

Messi got an early shot at the team who inflicted Copa heartache upon Argentina during the 2015 and 2016 final penalty shoot-outs and at times it felt like he was playing them by himself.

He opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick and his seven shots, three on target, two blocked and four chances created were the most of any Argentina player, as were his 66 touches and 10 crosses.

A rash challenge from Nicolas Tagliafico resulted in a Chile penalty before the hour, with Eduardo Vargas converting on the rebound after Emiliano Martinez saved from Arturo Vidal. A timely reminder that Messi would not quite be able to do this all alone.

Group stage: Argentina 1-0 Uruguay

From a short corner, Messi unfurled a trademark slow-slow-quick dribble to engineer space for the cross from which Guido Rodriguez scored the only goal.

Although less immediately visible than in the Chile match, Messi showcased his overall mastery of the game. He completed 40 of 47 passes, with 40 of them coming in the opposition half as he relentlessly poked and prodded at Uruguay.

His 78 touches were the joint-most by an Argentinian alongside Rodrigo de Paul and he contested 24 duels, winning 62.5 per cent. Left-back Marcos Acuna contested the next most duels with 11.

 

Group stage: Argentina 1-0 Paraguay

This was the only game in the build-up to the final where Messi was unable to provide either a goal or an assist amid a cagey affair of few chances.

Angel Di Maria unfurled a dreamy reverse pass for Papu Gomez to dink home a cute early finish – both pieces of skill that would have looked at home emanating from Messi's boots.

The man himself managed three shots with two on target and was fouled five times, more than any of his team-mates. He completed 34 of 41 passes, made 73 touches (second to right-back Nahuel Molina with 75) and won 70.6 per cent of a team-high 17 duels.

Group stage: Bolivia 1-4 Argentina

Bolivia left the competition with four defeats from as many outings and Messi and Argentina went to town on the Group A whipping boys.

The number 10 set up Gomez's opener and scored twice himself, the first from the penalty spot. His five shots and four on target led the way for Argentina.

Messi had 94 touches – fewer than strike partner Lautaro Martinez, German Pazzella and Acuna, by way of underlining how much Lionel Scaloni's men dominated the ball. Of his 75 passes, 62 came in the Bolivia half.

Quarter-final: Argentina 3-0 Ecuador

By the first knockout round, Argentina and Messi had hit their stride. He set up goals for De Paul and Martinez before getting in on the act in injury time.

Overall, Messi had seven shots with four blocked and created five chances.

His number of passes dropped down to 26, with 19 completed. Of those, 22 were in the opposition half, showing Messi zeroing in his efforts in the danger areas near the opposition goal.

 

Semi-final: Argentina 1-1 Colombia (Argentina won 3-2 on penalties)

Repeating a theme from the group stage, Messi got the assist for Martinez's early breakthrough before fading as Luis Diaz equalised after half-time.

Messi converted his spot-kick, as Emiliano Martinez was the hero with three shoot-out saves.

In open play, the superstar forward's three shots, three blocked shots and four key passes were the most of any Argentina player, as were his 68 touches, 26 duels (57.7 per cent success) and five fouls won. Messi attempted eight crosses, with none of his team-mates sending in more than one.

Final: Argentina 1-0 Brazil

After carrying his country on his back for chunks of this tournament and through good times and bad over the past decade, perhaps it was finally Messi's time to be hoisted aloft by those around him.

His two key passes were the most by any Albiceleste player, as were 40 passes made and 33 completed.

But Messi was confined to the margins, with De Paul's stunning long pass and Di Maria's cool lob over Ederson enough for long-desired glory.

Lionel Messi's long wait for major international honours with Argentina is finally over after playing a starring role in their Copa America triumph, winning the Player of the Tournament prize before the final was even played.

In the age-old – and some might say tiresome – 'greatest of all time' debate, the stick usually used to beat Messi with revolved around his lack of titles with Argentina, but that is no longer relevant and he also played a vital role for La Albiceleste.

It was also an important barrier that Argentina broke down as a team, winning their first major international title since 1993.

Messi's performances see him lead Stats Perform's Opta data-driven Team of the Tournament, and he is joined by some familiar names as well as those who enjoyed breakthroughs over the past month.

 

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Argentina)

Aston Villa keeper Martinez has enjoyed a remarkable 18 months or so and it's fair to say his form at the Copa America has helped truly cement his place as Argentina's first choice between the posts. His personality proved vital in the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the semi-finals as he psyched out Yerry Mina, but he also showed his excellence by finishing with an 85.7 per cent save ratio that was the second best in the tournament, while his four clean sheets was the best tally.

 

Right-back – Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)

Cuadrado can always be relied upon to provide some attacking impetus on the right flank and he certainly didn't disappoint in the Copa, his 18 chances created being the most for Colombia and among the top five of all players. The same could be said of his 22 open-play crosses, while Cuadrado also made 45 recoveries, the second most in Los Cafeteros' squad, highlighting how he was often in the right place to sweep up danger as well.

 

Centre-back – Marquinhos (Brazil)

While Brazil ultimately fell short at the Maracana on Saturday, Marquinhos can leave the tournament with his head held high. His ability to bring the ball out from the back was routinely notable, as highlighted by the fact his 110 carries was bettered by only four players, all of whom are forwards, but he was also a commanding presence at the back, with his 2.8 aerial the most among Brazil players.

Centre-back – Piero Hincapie (Ecuador)

Still only 19, Hincapie showed real promise here. Granted, there were signs that he remains quite raw and naive, as demonstrated by some of his struggles against Argentina in the quarter-finals when he was sent off late on for tugging back Angel Di Maria. Nevertheless, the Lazio-linked talent averaged the most passes per game for Ecuador (52.2) and showed real positivity when in possession, carrying the ball 600.7 metres upfield over the course of the tournament, at least 44m more than any other centre-back.

Left-back – Pervis Estupinan (Ecuador)

Estupinan endured a somewhat underwhelming first season with Villarreal in 2020-21, but in the Copa he showed glimpses of the player that had impressed so regularly with Osasuna the season before. He was consistently a useful outlet on the left and his eagerness to create saw him average more crosses per 90 minutes (9.6) than any other player in the tournament, while his 2.4 key passes each game was the most of all defenders.

Central midfield – Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

The all-action midfielder performed an important function as Colombia ultimately finished third in the Copa. Barrios was tidy in possession as he looked to keep Reinaldo Rueda's men ticking, completing 88 per cent of his passes, but he was also effective at regaining possession and recovering the ball as he started 76 open play sequences, which only Yoshimar Yotun and Casemiro could better.

Central midfield – Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)

Get ready to hear a bit more about De Paul over the next few years. While he's by no means an unknown given he's had a strong few years with Udinese, the midfielder is set to join Atletico Madrid and offers the blend of off-the-ball nous and technical ability that should see him thrive under Diego Simeone. His 32 ball recoveries led the way for Argentina while his six key passes was second only to Lionel Messi, with one of those being the glorious long-range pass to release Di Maria for the crucial goal in the final.

Right wing – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

While he may have fluffed his lines at the end of the final, Messi's exploits throughout the tournament previously meant he could be forgiven for that. After all, without his unbeaten four goals and five assists – a high for the tournament – Argentina almost certainly wouldn't have reached the showpiece. He remains one goal behind Pele's record (77) for CONMEBOL nations, but he finally has his first trophy with Argentina, and that's what matters most.

 

Attacking midfield – Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar had a peculiar tournament in some ways. No one would suggest he was poor, because he was routinely the player that provided the spark for Brazil, as evidenced by his tournament-leading 3.5 key passes and 21.6 passes into the final third each game (among players with more than one match played), but he was also wasteful in front of goal, his one non-penalty goal from 5.3 xG giving him the worst xG under-performance (4.3) at the tournament.

 

Left wing – Luis Diaz (Colombia)

Porto's Diaz is an exciting player and showed as much for Colombia as they claimed bronze. He scored more non-penalty goals (four) than any other player and produced some spectacular finishes, such as his remarkable bicycle-kick against Brazil and 30-yard screamer to seal victory in the third-place play-off against Peru. His four goals came from just 10 shots, with that 40 per cent conversion the best among those with three or more goals.

 

Striker – Lautaro Martinez (Argentina)

Despite the presence of Sergio Aguero, Martinez was the man generally chosen to lead the line at the Copa and he did fairly well as he netted three goals, with only Messi and Diaz getting more. While he was guilty of wastefulness at times, his three-goal haul was actually pretty close to his 3.3 xG, showing that for the most part he was dependable. Similarly, only two players averaged more shots on target per 90 minutes (players with more than one match played) than his 1.4. He also improved on his two goals from the 2019 edition, so he's seemingly going in the right direction.

Lionel Messi has expressed his happiness and relief at finally winning silverware with Argentina after Saturday's Copa America 2021 triumph over Brazil at the Maracana.

Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 after Angel Di Maria's 22nd-minute strike, earning six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi his maiden piece of silverware with La Albiceleste.

Messi has finished runner-up in the Copa three times; 2007, 2015 and 2016, as well as runner-up at the 2014 World Cup and revealed his joy after the game.

"I needed to get the thorn out of being able to achieve something with the national team, I had been very close for many years," Messi told reporters.

"I knew that at some point it was going to go right, it was going to happen and I think there is no better moment than this.

"I feel that God was saving this moment for me, against Brazil in the final and in their country."

Along with breaking 34-year-old Messi's international duck, it is also was Argentina's first Copa America since 1993, ending a 28-year wait.

"We still cannot believe that we are champions and what we have achieved," Messi said. "But I think it will be a match that will remain in history, not only because we are champions of South America but also because we beat them Brazil in their country."

Argentina's win marked 20 games unbeaten under head coach Lionel Scaloni and offered optimism for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Scaloni has changed the Argentine side, with relative newcomers Emiliano Martinez, Rodrigo De Paul and Cristiano Romero impressing.

"Lionel deserves special merit," Messi said. "He always wanted the best for the national team. He knew how to put together a winning team and deserves recognition."

Messi added: "We have to take advantage of this generation, this new crop of players. I told them they were going to be the future of the national team and I was not wrong. They showed it, today we are champions."

Scaloni also heaped praise on Messi who was named Player of the Tournament alongside Brazil's Neymar.

The Argentine finished as the equal top scorer with four goals as well as most assists (five).

“If all Argentines knew about the way he played this Copa America, they would love him more and more," Scaloni said. "I have no doubt.

"I, as a coach, could never do without this player, including playing in inferior conditions than we faced in this final and the semi-final.

"That's the kind of player we have and we have to enjoy, because one day in your career you won't be playing anymore. I have no words for him, he makes things easier on a daily basis."

Brazil head coach Tite has praised superstar Neymar for his show of sportsmanship to Lionel Messi after his side's 1-0 Copa America final defeat to Argentina on Saturday.

Neymar's Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Angel Di Maria scored the winner in the 22nd minute at the Maracana as Argentina lifted its first Copa since 1993 as Brazil relinquished the crown it won in 2019.

The Brazil boss was clearly disappointment with the result but spoke positively about Neymar's grace after acknowledging Messi's achievement in winning his maiden piece of silverware with Argentina.

The superstar pair are close friends from their four years together at Barcelona.

"There is greatness in defeat and in recognising the rival," Tite said.

"Perhaps, the image that was seen between Messi and Neymar after the game is a message that we have to give."

Tite was less positive about Copa America organisers, identifying CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez for criticism at the hastily organised event.

Copa America 2021 was originally planned to be played in Colombia and Argentina but hastily re-arranged due to political and COVID-19 issues with Brazil confirmed as hosts in May.

The defeat was the first time the Selecao have failed to win a Copa America played in Brazil, winning all five previous tournaments on home soil.

"The organisation of the Copa America left a lot to be desired," Tite said after the final defeat. "The quality of the pitches [left a lot to be desired].

"We almost lost Everton in training. We went to train, the grass locked up and he had a dislocated finger. In a short time it is impossible to organise a competition of this magnitude.

"I'm specifically talking about the person in charge, Alejandro (Dominguez), president of CONMEBOL, of having the organisation of the competition over a short period of time."

Tite had been outspoken about the quality of pitches during the tournament, in particular Estadio Nilton Santos in Rio de Janeiro where Brazil played four games.

Brazil's participation at the Copa was in doubt pre-tournament as the players opposed the relocation amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Like Cristiano Ronaldo five years ago, Lionel Messi has ended his international trophy drought with continental glory.

Ballon d'Ors are one thing, with the pair sharing 11 between them, but achieving success with the national team has been critical to the grander standing and legacy of the two outstanding players of this generation.

There is a school of thought that Messi remains in Diego Maradona's shadow in Argentina.

The late Maradona, of course, took La Albiceleste to World Cup glory in 1986, which has eluded Messi who was a runner-up in 2014.

But Messi had also never won the Copa America. That was until Saturday's 1-0 win over Brazil, at the Maracana, the same venue where he lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany.

Messi was part of the Argentina sides that lost Copa finals in 2015 and 2016. He briefly retired after missing his penalty in the 2016 final shootout.

This tournament was his sixth shot at lifting the trophy. And it was the 34-year-old's best yet, dominating as joint top scorer with four goals and topping the Copa assists charts with four.

Messi was not the star in the final, with a lively Angel Di Maria scoring the winner with Argentina's first touch inside Brazil's penalty area.

Udinese midfielder Rodrigo De Paul set up the winner and was a key presence at both ends, while goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was the star in the semi-final shootout and exceptional again in the final.

But Messi was the big story. The Argentina captain and superstar has taken a huge weight off his shoulders with international glory.

Argentina fans will start dreaming about what is possible at next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Lionel Scaloni's La Albiceleste are unbeaten across 20 games and conceded only three goals at the Copa America.

Argentina scored 12 goals across the seven games in the tournament, with Messi directly involved in nine.

The final was billed as Messi versus fellow superstar and former Barcelona team-mate Neymar, who was busy but closely marked throughout by the Argentines in the final.

Neymar, who missed Brazil's 2019 Copa triumph, is another global superstar yet to lift the World Cup or a continental title. Missing out on home soil will be a great disappointment for the Selecao.

The loss was Brazil's first at home in 25 games under Tite (W21 D3 L1). It also ended their 13-game unbeaten run.

The margin between victory and defeat was fine, but the fallout for Messi and Neymar is a stark contrast. Ecstasy and pain.

Argentina have ended their 28-year wait to lift the Copa America after Angel Di Maria's first-half goal clinched a 1-0 victory over Brazil in Saturday's final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana.

Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Di Maria, who was promoted to the starting line-up for the final, coolly lobbed over Brazil goalkeeper Ederson for the 22nd-minute winner.

Argentina had been Copa runners-up at four of the past seven tournaments, losing to rivals Brazil in 2004 and 2007, but finally claimed the country's 15th continental crown.

The triumph also marks Lionel Messi's maiden piece of major silverware with Argentina, with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner dominant throughout the tournament, finishing with most goals (four) and most assists (five).

In a physical encounter, Brazil superstar Neymar received plenty of attention while Messi was unable to exude his normal influence for La Albiceleste.

Brazil started the better but could only manage scuffed efforts on goal from Everton and Richarlison before Argentina struck against the run of play.

The outstanding Rodrigo De Paul's hopeful ball forward eluded Selecao left-back Renan Lodi, allowing Di Maria in behind and he calmly poked over the onrushing Ederson.

Di Maria was a constant threat in the first half, with a left-foot effort blocked by Marquinhos before Messi flashed wide.

With the half-time injection of Roberto Firmino, Brazil pressed and thought they had equalised in the 52nd minute when Richarlison hit the back of the net but was offside in the lead-up.

The Everton forward tested Argentina keeper Emiliano Martinez at his near post shortly after, with the Aston Villa man saving smartly.

Brazil substitute Gabriel Barbosa had a late volley brilliantly thwarted by Martinez, before an exhausted Messi spurned a golden opportunity to seal the win from De Paul's throughball.

Lionel Messi will lead out Argentina in Saturday's Copa America final aware it could be the last opportunity he has to win silverware with La Albiceleste – and ending that hoodoo against Brazil would be the sweetest prize of all.

Messi holds the records for most caps and goals for Argentina, and his career at club level with Barcelona has ensured his legacy will be intrinsically linked to the sport for the rest of time.

But there remains a niggling frustration with respect to his time with Argentina, given he is yet to win a major international tournament with them. It is arguably the final piece of the puzzle and the one thing that separates him from the others in the 'greatest of all-time' debate.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele, Diego Maradona – they all enjoyed success on the international stage, and while it would be unfair to suggest Messi's legacy will not match up to theirs without honours with Argentina, it is a fact that would be continuously used to downplay his claim regardless of winning everything at Barca.

 

It is not that Messi has not come close – this will be his fifth major senior final with Argentina, and he's lost the previous four, but will Argentina be considered among the favourites at the World Cup next year? Probably not.

It may be now or never, and standing in the way is his former Barca team-mate Neymar, who will be playing his first major final for Brazil.

The Paris Saint-Germain star has been typically enthralling to watch in the tournament, though Brazil will be hoping his form in front of goal improves. It has not done them much damage thus far given they are in the final, but his one non-penalty goal comes from an xG (expected goals) value of 5.1 – it's two from 5.9 with penalties included.

 

No one else in the tournament has been as wasteful as Neymar, whose eight Opta-defined 'big chances' missed is also the most of anyone at Copa America 2021.

But Messi will know more than most that Neymar rises to the biggest occasions, and few are bigger than a Superclasico in a Copa America final.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Lucas Paqueta

While Paqueta's club career may not have taken off in Europe as he would have liked following his initial move to Milan, it is fair to say this tournament has represented something of a 'coming of age' tale for him on the international stage. With two goals, he heads into the final tied with Neymar as the Selecao's leading goalscorer, while he's also been a creative threat. Granted, he may not have any assists yet, but his 1.56 xA (expected assists) is bettered only by Messi (2.93) and Neymar (2.34). He has been let down by poor finishing, but at least the chances are flowing.

 

Argentina – Lautaro Martinez

Along with Messi (four, including one penalty), Martinez (three) is the only player to have scored more than twice at this year's tournament. Although he is slightly underperforming his 3.3 xG and has missed five 'big chances', the Inter striker has been consistently dangerous, with his 0.88 xG per 90 minutes second only to Neymar (1.03) among players to have played at least 180 minutes. 

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil will be playing their seventh final in the last 11 editions of the Copa America, winning on their most recent five appearances in the showpiece game (1997, 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2019). Their last defeat in a Copa America final was in 1995, losing the title to Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out.

- Brazil have not lost a knockout match at the Copa America (W7 D6) since 2001, when they suffered a 2-0 loss against Honduras. Their eliminations since then came via penalty shoot-outs (2011 and 2015) or in the group stage (2016).

- Brazil have reached the final in all editions of the Copa America played on Brazilian soil (six, including 2021). They won each of the previous five.

- Argentina will be playing their sixth final in the Copa America since 1993. It will be the third time in this period that they have played for the title against Brazil, failing to win against them in the past two deciders between the teams.

- Messi has scored five times against Brazil, making them his joint second-favourite opponent after Ecuador (six goals).

Neymar will be putting his friendship with former Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi aside as he chases his first Copa America title with Brazil in Saturday's final.

Brazil takes on Argentina in the Copa America 2021 decider at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, with both players pursuing their first-ever continental crowns.

Messi's Argentina have not won the Copa since 1993, while injury meant Neymar was not part of the Brazil squad which triumphed in 2019.

The pair have a close friendship from Neymar's four years in Barcelona, while they have both dominated this Copa.

Messi leads the Copa with four goals and five assists, while Neymar has contributed two goals and three assists for hosts Brazil.

"Messi is, as I've always said, the best player I've ever seen play and he's a great friend," Neymar said. "But now we're in a final, we're rivals. I want to win and I really want to win this title, which would be my first Copa America.

"Messi has been looking for his first title with the national team for many years, and every time we we [Brazil] are not present at the tournament, I cheered for him.

"That's what I've been cheering for in the 2014 World Cup final, when he faced Germany.

"Now Brazil is in the dispute, so our friendship is on the line [laughs]. The respect between us in still great but only one can win."

He added: "When you're friends with someone, it's hard to forget the friendship you have... but for example when you play video games with a friend, you want to beat him anyway. It'll be the same thing on Saturday."

Neymar also hit out on Instagram about Brazilian fans who have turned on the national team and opted to support rivals Argentina.

"I'm Brazilian with a lot of pride, with a lot of love. My dream was always to be in the Brazilian national team and hear the fans singing," he wrote. "I've never supported or will support against anything Brazil is competing for, whatever the sport or modelling contest."

Brazil is chasing its 10th Copa title, while Argentina is looking to end its 28-year wait to add to its 14 continental crowns.

Argentina have won five games in a row, including their semi-final victory over Colombia, and are unbeaten across their past 19 games.

Brazil are undefeated in their past 13 games and have only conceded two goals at Copa America 2021.

Lionel Messi hailed "phenomenon" Emiliano Martinez after the Argentina goalkeeper saved three penalties to lead La Albiceleste to the Copa America final.

After Tuesday's semi-final against Colombia ended 1-1 without extra time, Martinez was the hero in the shoot-out, saving penalties from Davinson Sanchez, Yerry Mina and Edwin Cardona as Argentina earned a blockbuster showdown with defending champions Brazil.

Penalties were needed after Lautaro Martinez's seventh-minute opener was cancelled out by Colombia winger Luis Diaz just past the hour-mark in Brasilia.

Messi will have another chance to claim his first senior international trophy on Saturday as Argentina eye their first title since 1993, and the superstar captain heaped praise on Emiliano Martinez post-game.

"At times it became difficult," said Messi, who provided the assist for Lautaro Martinez and struck the post with nine minutes remaining. "But we have Emi who is a phenomenon.

"We trusted him. We achieved the goal of being able to play every game and now we are going to the final.

"It was very hard, but we deserved it because we wanted it.

"The last cup, the group had already become strong and had left a good image. Now we are going to the final."

Argentina – Copa runners-up in 2015 and 2016 – are in the midst of a 19-match unbeaten streak, dating back to the 2019 semi-final against Brazil at the CONMEBOL tournament.

It is the second longest unbeaten streak among Argentina head coaches, Lionel Scaloni only behind Alfio Basile (33 between 1991 and 1993).

 

"It is a time to celebrate, to enjoy. Tomorrow [Wednesday] we will think about the final," Scaloni told reporters.

"It takes a lot to get here, a lot of work, a lot of time from all the people who accompany us.

"My voice almost broke when talking about this group of players. We have been focused for a long time and they continue to push forward."

Messi finished with a team-high five key passes and a joint team-best three shots against Colombia.

Since 2011, Messi is the Argentina player with the most duels of the ball – averaging 15.7 per game after being involved in 26 in the semi-finals.

"For me, there is no better version of Messi, he is the one that always gives," added Scaloni. "We are very proud of him and of his team-mates."

As for Emiliano Martinez, Scaloni said: "We are very happy with Emiliano's performance, not only because of the penalties, but also because of the security he is transmitting. The group of goalkeepers supports themselves permanently and we like that."

When you take a look at Lionel Messi's trophy cabinet, there isn't much missing.

No player in Barcelona's history has won more titles than Messi at Camp Nou – 10 LaLiga trophies and four Champions League crowns among his club-record haul of 34 pieces of silverware.

That's even before you get to his individual accolades and records… six Ballons d'Or to go with being Barcelona and Argentina's all-time leading goalscorer among other things.

But there is one glaring absence in Messi's trophy cabinet – a senior international title with Argentina. Unlike legendary countryman Diego Maradona and even Portuguese foe Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi has never conquered the international stage.

Regarded as one of, if not, the greatest footballer of all time, yet Messi has often been the bridesmaid and never the bride with La Albiceleste following three runners-up medals at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016, while he was left heartbroken in the 2018 World Cup decider.

Such is the pain, there's also been periods of international retirement for Messi. The 34-year-old debating whether to shoulder the load of another drought-ending quest for Argentina, dating back to the 1993 Copa America.

But, thanks to Emiliano Martinez and his heroics, Messi's coveted dream of international glory remains alive as the superstar prepares for a fifth final in Argentina colours.

 

Martinez saved three penalties in the shoot-out to send Argentina through to Saturday's showpiece against defending champions and rivals Brazil at the iconic Maracana after Tuesday's clash with Colombia ended 1-1.

Argentina goalkeeper Martinez came up big when his country needed him most, saving penalties from Davinson Sanchez, Mina and Edwin Cardona. It was the third shoot-out between Argentina and Colombia in Copa history, with the former winning all of them.

Prior to Martinez's herculean effort, magical Messi had pulled the strings for Argentina.

Messi was brilliant from the outset, the superstar dancing past three players before picking out Lautaro Martinez, but the latter's header sailed just wide of the post in the fourth minute.

Not heeding Messi's initial warning, the most-capped player in Argentina's history did create the opening goal three minutes later – twisting away from Mina before lifting his head to find Lautaro for his fifth assist of this year's tournament.

It was a sign of things to come from Messi, who ended the opening half with a flawless passing accuracy – 100 per cent.

 

As has so often been the case during the tournament, Argentina fell away following a bright start and Colombia were unfortunate not to equalise. However, Messi – unsurprisingly – continued to be at the heart of his team's best moments.

The conductor of Argentina's orchestra, Messi was almost unstoppable – it took a third Colombia defender to hack him down. Messi then saw his shot hit the woodwork with nine minutes remaining.

He finished with a team-high key passes and a joint team-best three shots against Colombia. Since 2011, Messi is the Argentina player with the most duels of the ball – averaging 15.7 per game after being involved in 26 in the semi-finals.

Argentina has been the source of great anguish for Messi. But, Lionel Scaloni's men are riding the wave of 19 matches without defeat, dating back to the 2019 Copa semi against Brazil. It is the second longest unbeaten streak among Argentina head coaches, only behind Alfio Basile (33 between 1991 and 1993).

It seems somewhat fitting that Messi – amid talk of a possible seventh Ballon d'Or – has the chance to cap his remarkable career with an international prize against the Selecao in Rio de Janeiro.

Lionel Messi's Argentina will face Brazil in the Copa America final after overcoming Colombia in a dramatic penalty shoot-out thanks to Emiliano Martinez.

With no extra time, penalties were needed after Luis Diaz equalised in the 61st-minute to cancel out Lautaro Martinez's first-half opener in Brasilia on Tuesday.

Emiliano Martinez was the hero in the shoot-out after the Argentina goalkeeper saved three spot-kicks to send the 14-time Copa winners – eyeing their first major title since 1993 – through to Sunday's blockbuster decider against defending champions Brazil.

Messi, who is craving his first senior crown with La Albiceleste, was brilliant from the outset, the superstar dancing past three players before picking out Lautaro Martinez, but the latter's header sailed just wide of the post in the fourth minute.

Martinez got his goal three minutes later, however, after drilling home past David Ospina – Messi with the presence of mind to twist away from Yerry Mina before lifting his head and finding the Inter star.

Colombia almost celebrated an immediate response, though Emiliano Martinez was on hand to deny Juan Cuadrado – earning his 100th cap – just moments later.

As has so often been the case during the tournament, Argentina fell away following a bright start and Colombia were unfortunate not to equalise.

Colombia came within a whisker of restoring parity in the 37th minute, hitting the woodwork twice within seconds after Mina's header rattled the crossbar from the resulting corner following Wilmar Barrios' deflected shot that struck the post.

On the stroke of half-time, Argentina went close to doubling their lead after Nicolas Gonzalez's header was narrowly pushed onto the roof of the net by Ospina.

Colombia responded well to falling behind and they were eventually rewarded via Diaz's equaliser just past the hour-mark.

Diaz got in behind Argentina's defence following a quick free-kick and the winger somehow managed to beat Emiliano Martinez from an acute angle as Lionel Scaloni's men were caught napping.

Colombia were fortunate to still be on level terms when Ospina came flying out of his penalty area as substitute Angel Di Maria charged through, but Barrios was on hand to make the last-ditch goal-line block, denying Lautaro Martinez in the 73rd minute.

Messi then saw his shot hit the woodwork with nine minutes remaining during a tense finale as the showdown headed to penalties.

Brazil superstar Neymar said he wants to face Lionel Messi's Argentina in the Copa America final after the defending champions edged Peru.

Neymar provided the assist for Lucas Paqueta's 35th-minute winner as Brazil saw off 2019 runners-up Peru 1-0 in Monday's semi-final.

Brazil will meet the winner of the Argentina-Colombia semi in Saturday's decider at the iconic Maracana and Neymar is eyeing a blockbuster showdown with La Albiceleste.

South American rivals Brazil and Argentina have not met in a Copa final since 2007, when the Selecao won 3-0.

"I want Argentina, I'm rooting for Argentina," Neymar – a former Barcelona team-mate of Messi – said post-match in Rio de Janeiro.

"I have friends there, then in the final it will be Brazil [laughs]."

 

Neymar was impressive throughout at Estadio Nilton Santos, attempting a team-high four shots to go with two key passes and the decisive assist.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward was also fouled three times. No player has been fouled more often than Neymar (25) during this year's CONMEBOL tournament.

Meanwhile, head coach Tite made history by equalling Mario Zagallo as the Brazil head coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12), winning nine games and drawing three fixtures.

The 60-year-old has the fifth-best winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 games in Copa America history – 75 per cent.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 42 clean sheets in 60 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (70 per cent).

After the game, however, Neymar took aim at Chilean referee Roberto Tobar, saying: "The referee cannot do what he did. It's a lack of respect for all the players, the way he talks, the way he looks, what he says on the field to the players. 

"From the very first minute I went to talk to him, and he was very arrogant. Everyone is saying that, I think it's not normal for both teams to complain. 

"Not the way he whistled the match. He can make mistakes, that's part of it, but the arrogance he had in that match... For me, he can't be a referee in a Copa America semi-final."

Just like the quarter-final, Paqueta scored the winning goal for Brazil – who are now eyeing their 10th Copa crown.

Paqueta has scored in back-to-back appearances for Brazil in all competitions for the first time in his career.

"Paqueta is a great player," Neymar said. "Has been growing with each game, with each game he plays for the national team. He had a great season for his club and has shown that he can be a very important player for us in the national team.  I'm happy with his participation, with the game he played. It's always good to meet great players in the national team."

Colombia will look to pull off an upset and reach the Copa America final for the first time outside of their country when they take on a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina on Tuesday.

Los Cafeteros have lost their six previous semi-finals at neutral venues in the competition, with their only two final appearances – in 1975 and 2001 – seeing them play at least one game on home soil.

Reinaldo Rueda's side beat Uruguay on penalties in the quarter-finals – David Ospina saving two spot-kicks in the shoot-out – following a goalless draw after 90 minutes.

A tough match with Argentina in Brasilia awaits and Rueda, who was only reappointed by Colombia in January, is happy with the progress made by his side in that short period.

"We played a very collective game against Uruguay, with a lot of solidarity and the right balance," he said. "All this helps us believe that we can continue with our improvements.

"We will continue to demand more and more from ourselves in each session before the next game."

If Colombia are to have any hope of overcoming Argentina, they will need to do something Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile failed to do by keeping Messi quiet.

He leads the Copa America scoring charts with four goals, including a fine free-kick in the quarter-final win over Ecuador, while also providing a competition-high four assists. 

Messi has never previously won a trophy with Argentina, and that remains the superstar forward's main focus ahead of Tuesday's semi-final showdown.

"I've always said that individual prizes are secondary. We're here for something else," he said. "We have an objective and we're focused on that."

Argentina squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Colombia in their most recent meeting just last month, a game that is still fresh in Messi's memory.

"They denied us in a match that we had under control. That's why we can't take this for granted," Messi added. "We have to play our game and keep hold of the ball."

 

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina - Lionel Messi

With his four goals and four assists so far, Messi has been involved in 80 per cent of Argentina's 10 goals at this edition of the Copa America.

He may not be focused on individual honours, but he is now just one short of Brazil great Pele's all-time goals record (77) for a South American country.

Colombia - Juan Cuadrado

The versatile Juventus winger missed his side's quarter-final with Uruguay after picking up two yellow cards in the group stage, but he is back in contention to face Argentina.

While Cuadrado may not have a goal or assist to his name yet this tournament, he remains one of Colombia's most dangerous players and his fresh legs could come in handy.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- Argentina and Colombia will face each other for the third time in the Copa America semi-finals. The first meeting was in 1993, when Argentina won on penalties, and the second one was in 2004 with another win for Argentina. 

- The last time these sides faced each other in the Copa America was in 2019 with a 2-0 win for Colombia.

- Argentina have failed to progress from just one of their last six Copa America semi-finals: against Brazil in 2019 (a 2-0 loss). Argentina have never played a Copa America final on Brazilian soil.

- Colombia are the team with the most recoveries (306), interceptions (74) and fouls conceded (78, alongside Paraguay) in the current Copa America.

"I honestly don't know if he's going to get tired of being praised every day," Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni mused after Lionel Messi's latest masterclass.

Once again, Messi was at the heart of all of Argentina's attacking play, providing two assists before netting a goal of his own with a sublime late free-kick in Saturday's 3-0 Copa America quarter-final win over Ecuador.

The 34-year-old tops the Copa America charts for goals and assists, with four of each.

As Scaloni suggests, it is hard to stop praising him. There arguably are not enough superlatives to describe Messi.

This Copa may have been viewed as the younger Neymar's time, on home soil, but the numbers back up the veteran Messi so far.

On a grander scale, Messi has now scored 76 goals for Argentina, one short of Pele's 77 for Brazil.

Only Pele has scored more goals for a CONMEBOL nation, meaning Messi – who will play his 150th cap for Argentina in the semi-finals – is on the verge of another remarkable feat.

There is no shortage of individual accomplishments which could be listed off for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner but as Argentina progress deeper at the Copa America in Brazil, the question of team success at international level looms for Messi.

He has never won a Copa America, nor the World Cup, coming close to the latter as 2014 runners-up in Brazil.

Fourteen-time winners Argentina, as a nation, have not lifted the Copa America since their second all-time top scorer Gabriel Batistuta helped them to the 1993 title.

Messi is playing at his sixth Copa, with Argentina finishing as runners-up three times during that period.

If La Albiceleste overcome Colombia in the semi-finals, they will likely face nemesis Brazil in the decider at the Maracana, the same venue where they lost the 2014 World Cup final.

The current crop is vastly different to the abundantly talented side from 2014, but Scaloni has made this group tough to break down, with a dependence Messi's individual brilliance in attack.

Scaloni's Argentina have gone 18 games unbeaten now, while they have only conceded once in their past four games at Copa.

This side have also scored in the first half in 11 consecutive matches. On Saturday against Ecuador they dearly clung on to a 1-0 lead for long periods of the second half, repelling several attacks with a resolute appproach as Ecuador had more possession (54 per cent). It is not the first time under Scaloni this has happened successfully.

So is this Messi's best shot at international success? Is it his last chance at the Copa, with the next event scheduled for 2024?

That remains to be seen for the 34-year-old, who is currently a free agent after his Barcelona contract expired on June 30, although he is expected to re-sign and play at next year's World Cup.

But the ingredients are there for that breakthrough success for both Messi and Argentina.

As the list of individual accomplishments and accolades continues to grow, achieving that elusive international team success with Argentina would solidify Messi's legacy. The time is now.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni has hailed Lionel Messi as "the best player of all time" after scoring one goal and setting up two others in the 3-0 Copa America quarter-final win over Ecuador.

Messi was the architect as La Albiceleste progressed to the Copa semi-finals where they will take on Colombia on Tuesday in Brasilia.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner set up Rodrigo De Paul for Argentina's 40th-minute opener, before assisting Lautaro Martinez's 85th minute sealer.

Messi grabbed a goal of his own in stoppage-time with a trademark free-kick which took him to 76 international goals in his 149th appearance for La Albiceleste.

"Leo's game, I honestly don't know if he's going to get tired of being praised every day," Scaloni said at the post-game media conference. "The best thing that can happen for us football lovers is that the stars play until any age they can and we enjoy it.

"Messi is enjoyed even by opponents when they play against him. We are talking about the best player of all time.

"It is difficult for a player to be at his level. Neymar may at some point be a similar player but because of what he has done, is doing and will continue to do, we must remember him for who he is."

The win extended Argentina's unbeaten run under Scaloni to 18 games and gives them a shot at ending their 28-year wait for a Copa America title.

La Albiceleste had recorded three wins and a draw in the group stage, including two unconvincing 1-0 victories, and Scaloni was content with a more emphatic result.

"Whoever believes that you can win every game 3-0 easily is wrong especially in this Copa America, which has conditions that are very different," he said.

"I don't know if it's the best moment for the team. It is an instance that we like, it is decisive and we will try to move forward with the utmost humility and work."

Scaloni was wary of semi-final opponents Colombia who won 4-2 on penalties against Uruguay after  a goalless draw to secure their spot in the last four.

"I want to emphasize that in this Copa America any of these teams could push any team in the world," he said.

"The level is quite high, it is not like before where the matches were taken for granted that you would win.

"We have already faced Colombia in the [World Cup] qualifiers. Now they will recover [Juan] Cuadrado, it will be difficult and like all matches.

"We hope to play it with the same intensity and enthusiasm, we have an enormous desire to play in the final."

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