Lionel Messi scores his first goal of Copa America 2024, Argentina heads to the final again

By Paul Tenorio, Felipe Cardenas, Joshua Kloke and Adam Crafton

Lionel Messi is inevitable. Argentina is inevitable.

Headed into Tuesday’s semifinal against Canada, Messi had gone four games without finding the back of the net, including a failed Panenka in a penalty kick shootout against Ecuador in the quarterfinal. But Messi was always going to score. He finally broke through onto the scoresheet in time to help ensure his country would make a fourth Copa Ameria final in five years.

In the 51st minute at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Messi worked the corner and drew Canada out of the box. Teammate Enzo Fernandez took aim while Messi positioned himself just onside and chipped Canadian goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau. It was an insult to injury to take their Canadian opponent down with a move reminiscent of the country’s national sport of hockey.

Earlier in the match Julian Alvarez, who was recently rotated back into the starting lineup in place of Lautaro Martinez, scored first. Argentina never quite relinquished the upper hand.

The Athletic was in the Garden State to dissect the key plays…

How did Messi score his first goal of Copa America 2024?

Argentina’s second goal started with a Messi burst into the Canada penalty area. It was reminiscent of the goal he scored against Australia in the second round of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Messi beat Canada’s Stephen Eustáquio then combined with De Paul for a quick one-two inside the box. Ismaël Koné was able to momentarily clear the ball, but it fell to Enzo Fernadez, who quickly put a shot on target. Messi opportunistically misdirected the ball into the net.

In doing so, Messi became the second highest all-time international goal scorer of all time, eclipsing Ali Daei, the Iranian forward who scored 108 goals for his country between 1993 and 2006. Messi is now onto 109 goals by scoring his first goal of this summer’s Copa America to double the Argentine lead against Canada. Messi, 37, is 21 goals behind the all-time record holder, his great rival, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo who has 130 goals. Ronaldo is 39-years-old and remains active, having played every game of Portugal’s Euro 2024 but failed to score a goal, leading many to wonder whether he may soon call time on his international career.

As of yet, however, he has provided no hint to this effect, this week stating the need to build on the legacy of this summer’s tournament together. Messi has 109 goals in 186 caps, meaning a goal every 1.7 games, while Ronaldo’s 130 goals have been scored across 212 games, meaning a goal every 1.63 games. We will let you argue in the comments therefore as to whether you would rather be Ronaldo, whose 21-goal advantage appears tricky to chase down, or Messi, with the better goals-per-minute ratio (and a World Cup winner’s medal).

How did Argentina open the scoring?

Argentina had threatened just once or twice and Canada seemed game to keep this semifinal close until an foul that escaped a whistle, a bit too much space for Rodrigo De Paul and a clever touch and finish from Julian Alvarez.

A long ball out of the back from Canada sought a player on the right wing, but an Argentine defender collided with the Canadian and the ball dropped harmlessly. As Canada coach Jesse Marsch gestured for a foul to be called, smacking his hands into the grass, Argentina recycled the ball around the back and found De Paul, who played a beautiful ball to Alvarez’s feet near the top of the box. Alvarez touched the ball past Moise Bombito and finished easily to give Argentina the 1-0 advantage.

The goal opened the game up a bit more for Argentina, but they weren’t able to find a second before the break and went into the half with a 1-0 lead. Messi, though, got his first goal of the tournament after the break to give Argentina a more comfortable two-goal advantage in the 51st minute.

Did Lionel Scaloni make the right decision to start Julian Alvarez over Lautaro Martinez?

Even though Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez has been on a tear at this Copa America, Julian Alvarez’s pressing and finishing abilities provided the perfect skill set against Canada. On Monday, Scaloni was asked about both of his strikers and which one would start in the semi-final. The manager gave nothing away, but he said

“They’re both scoring and that’s what we want.”

Alvarez scored Argentina’s first in the 23rd minute after midfielder Rodrigo De Paul split Canada’s two central defenders. Alvarez’s powerful and direct running are a weapon. His finishing is also so impressive. Scaloni made the right decision.

Did Canada miss chances?

A major question surrounding Canada not just heading out of the semi-final against Argentina, but from the entire tournament is how Canada can become more clinical close to goal.

Canada deserve credit for storming as far as they did, but two goals in five games does not lead to sustainable success. Considering Canada finished the tournament with over six xG, generating opportunities wasn’t their problem. It simply came down to a lack of precision and, crucially, Canada’s attackers not always being in sync. Jacob Shaffelburg was a joy to watch because of the fearlessness he played with, but it was especially clear against Argentina his timing alongside Cyle Larin and Jonathan David, two experienced forwards, was off. Is more patience close to goal the answer moving forward? Do they need to create even better chances?

Did bad luck play a role?

These are questions that should be at the top of the list for Marsch to answer in his post-tournament analysis. He has the kind of quality up front that teams Canada will likely play in 2026 won’t have. Marsch and Canada can’t still be having the “finishing” discussion in two years.

How did Jesse Marsch manage the game?

Some of Marsch’s decisions look like wise ones: going back to 22-year-old Ismael Kone after the crafty midfielder struggled in the tournament opener and did not play for Canada’s final group stage match seemed like a gamble considering how experienced Jonathan Osorio looked. But the gamble paid off: Canada’s rare moments of quality and dynamic play came thanks to Kone moving the ball quickly and confidently. Kone moving on from those aforementioned struggles speaks to a genuine emotional maturity that should help him in his development.

But later in the game, Marsch’s substitutions spoke to a different game plan: moving on from his best forward, Jonathan David, early in the second half for Tani Oluwaseyi, with just 17 MLS matches to his name, suggested either Marsch felt the game was out of reach and he wanted Oluwaseyi to gain valuable experience, or he had lost faith in David.

Marsch then doubled down by substituting in Mathieu Choiniere for his first appearance of the tournament – and for just his fourth international cap – for his longtime general of the midfield, Stephen Eustaquio.

Look, experience is good and necessary for Canada’s emerging players and could benefit them come 2026, when Marsch will need a deeper bench. But Canada also never really mounted much pressure in the second half, making the game feel more out of reach than it might have been. It’s worth wondering if some of those substitutions – along with Alphonso Davies being forced to leave the game with an injury in the 71st minute – kept the game further out of reach than it needed to be.

What’s next for each team?

Argentina will face the winner of  Uruguay vs. Colombia in the final on Sunday, July 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET (Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida)

Canada heads to the third-place game and will face either Uruguay vs. Colombia on Saturday, July 13 at 8:00 p.m. ET (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina)

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(Photo credit: Getty Images) 

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