Player ratings: Martínez excels on penalties in Argentina win

HOUSTON, Texas — On America’s Independence Day, Lionel Messi and Argentina wanted to set off the fireworks for their fans with a quarterfinal win but once again, just like the 2022 World Cup final, it was their goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who took the role of hero as his two massive saves helped his team beat Ecuador in a dramatic penalty shootout, securing a place in the semifinals of the Copa América on Thursday night.

After missing Argentina’s final group stage match against Perú due to a muscle injury, Messi returned to the starting lineup and led the defending World Cup and Copa América champions to a win over their South American rivals in a physical game in Houston. It was not an easy match for Argentina, however, and despite their possession, there were countless moments when Ecuador really should have taken more advantage. Even in the final moments, Ecuador will have felt they should have delivered.

The start of the game was dominated by La Tricolor as their left-hand side pushed Argentina’s backline, constantly catching full-back Nahuel Molina off guard. In fact, on one occasion, it took a very good save at the start from Martínez (from Jeremy Sarmiento) to keep it scoreless.

Aside from one good drive and cross in the first 20 minutes, Messi was also relatively quiet in the first 30 minutes. Argentina, as usual, took a little time to get going but the longer the first half developed, the more accustomed they got to Ecuador’s midblock and even higher up, when Ecuador went man-to-man, Argentina caught on.

Enzo Fernández‘s blocked attempt after a counter-attacking play ended in a corner and that’s how the opener introduced itself. Messi’s cross found Liverpool‘s Alexis Mac Allister in the box, who flicked it towards the far post, where he found an open Lisandro Martínez and the Manchester United defender was ready to pounce. Argentina took the lead as they headed into the break.

The second half came with drama as Ecuador earned a penalty after Rodrigo De Paul‘s hand in the box. It was finally a chance for Félix Sánchez Bas’s men to equalize. However, Enner Valencia‘s poor penalty ensured Argentina’s and Martínez’s continued quest for a clean sheet throughout the entire campaign. But that changed pretty rapidly as Ecuador equalized in stoppage time thanks to Kevin Rodríguez, forcing a dramatic penalty shootout.

But that’s where Dibu, once again, stood for his team. Especially after Messi missed his panenka attempt. The Aston Villa stopper, who has been so important in these situations in the past — both Copa América and the World Cup — produced two huge attempts. His teammates did the rest with their spot kicks and in the end, Argentina came out victorious.

There is no doubt that manager Lionel Scaloni will probably leave this game with a feeling of caution because he knew his team allowed way too many opportunities and were not imposing going forward. In fact, Ecuador should have won it in 90 minutes. A lot for Scaloni to ponder.

But alas, that’s for another day as another final four spot beckons for La Albiceleste. They will now face the winner of Venezuela and Canada.

MANAGER RATING (1-10)

Lionel Scaloni, 5 — Made changes a little too late and even after they entered the game, he struggled to encourage his team to deal with a very physical, fast and forward-thinking Ecuadorian midfield, especially Moisés Caicedo, who was everywhere. Argentina won the game, but it was not an easy task and it was certainly not because of Scaloni’s decisions.

PLAYER RATINGS (1-10; 10: best. Players introduced after 70 minutes receive no rating)

GK Emiliano Martínez, 9 — A big save in the 14th minute from Jeremy Sarmiento and made himself big — mentally and physically — after Valencia’s missed penalty. Then, another incredible performance in the shootout with two massive saves. At this point, he is Argentina’s most important player. And I am including Messi.

DF Nahuel Molina, 6 — Not a great start in the first half, being caught off his defending duties as Ecuador’s left-hand side continued to push through the lines. But as the game developed, he got more involved in the forward-thinking play, helping Argentina’s wide areas.

DF Cristian Romero, 6 –– A typical performance from Cuti, which started on a foul against Valencia, just to show his presence. Overall, he was okay, but not as impressive as he usually is.

DF Lisandro Martínez, 7 — A great game, finding his first-ever goal for Argentina thanks to his headed attempt in the first half. Came off in the 78th minute.

DF Nicolás Tagliafico, 6 — Relatively quiet game, where he was more focused on the defensive aspects of his game. Some good tackles and runs in the second half.

MF Enzo Fernández, 5– A half-decent header in the first half and another just before the 35th minute as Argentina countered, but hit the defender. But overall, he struggled slightly to compose himself and was outshone by his Chelsea teammate Caicedo.

MF Alexis Mac Allister, 7 — Cleaned up a lot of mistakes from Argentina’s midfield in the first half, and it was his flick from Messi’s corner that set up the opener from Licha Martínez. Converted his penalty.

MF Rodrigo De Paul: 6 –– An inconsistent start to the game, felt the wrath of Ecuador’s midfield and it was his mistake that led to the penalty. Improved in the second but overall, a so-so performance.

MF Nicolás Gonzalez: 7– A great shift from the Fiorentina attacker who would move all over the pitch from the left-hand side. Did not stop running and hustled to get every ball back.

FW Lionel Messi: 5 — One decent run and a low-ball cross as well as a great ball for Fernández in the first half after not seeing many chances, but didn’t have as much space for him and his teammates. His corner was the setup for the goal, however. His presence was obviously still a massive impact but still looking for his first goal in the competition. A missed panenka in the shootout. Messi also had 32 ball touches against Ecuador, per Opta, which were his fewest in a competitive 90-minute match for Argentina since 2011.

FW Lautaro Martínez, 5 — After an electrifying start to the tournament, it was a quiet game for the Internazionale man. Lots of runs that didn’t really go anywhere. Replaced by Julián Álvarez in the 64th minute.

SUBSTITUTES

FW Julián Álvarez: 6 — A productive cameo, mainly there to do the running and pressing for Messi. Had a half-attempt moments after coming on. Converted his penalty.

DF Nicolås Otamendi, N/A

MF Giovani Lo Celso, N/A

DF Gonzalo Montiel, N/A — Converted his penalty.