Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Lionel Messi Stars In 3-0 Argentina Win

Well, what was looking like a possible national disaster for Argentina never actually came to pass. With two draws in two games, it was entirely possible that they'd be forced to bow out of the Copa America (as hosts!) in the group stages if they failed to win against an under-23 Costa Rica side. All eyes were on Lionel Messi, who'd been scapegoated for the team's disappointing performance in their first two matches.

Argentina had been slated for a lack of creative midfield play, and many were calling for the introduction of Palermo enganche Javier Pastore to address the problem. Sergio Batista went a different route, however, dropping both Ezequiel Lavezzi and Estaban Cambiasso and pulling Messi back to midfield. Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria would lead the attack. It was an interesting gamble, putting Messi in a position to control the game - but one that made him even less likely to have a chance of scoring.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, fielded a very defensive 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid designed to stifle their opposition rather than win the game. Bizarrely, they did so without Diego Madrigal, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Anyway, their strategy might have worked, had Messi not taken the opportunity to finally throw off the cloak of international doubt and dazzle the crowd with a wonderful display of movement and passing.

Were it not for the wayward finishing of Higuain, the Ballon d'Or winner might have had three assists by halftime. He was here, there, everywhere, dragging Costa Rica's defenders all over the place and then picking out blue and white shirts with perfectly weighted passes. He also should have been booked for diving in the box at one point, which is less good, but that doesn't make his play any less superb.

But for all of Messi's efforts, Argentina simply couldn't score. Aguero couldn't break through, only hitting the crossbar on a header from a corner. Higuain was hilariously incompetent. Angel di Maria was glued to the touchline. There was lovely movement and constant possession, but absolutely no cutting edge. By the 45th minute, things were getting troubling for the hosts.

And then, finally, a breakthrough. The ball was half-cleared by Costa Rica but fell invitingly onto Fernando Gago's right boot, and the midfielder smashed a grass-skimming volley towards Leonel Moreira's far post from about 25 yards out. The goalkeeper might have had it covered all the way, but a key deflecting pushed the shot back towards the middle of the post, meaning that Moreira could only parry - right into the path of Sergio Aguero. He was never going to miss an open goal from six yards out. 1-0 Argentina, and you could almost see the weight falling from the team's shoulders.

The second half was an outpouring of joyous football. Aguero notched his second soon after the break after a gorgeous pass by Messi found him free to guide the ball into the Ticos net, and Angel di Maria got on the scoresheet soon afterwards with a hammered near-post finish - again from a Messi through pass. The game was won, and the hosts were having fun at poor Costa Rica's expense. Higuain still couldn't buy a goal though.

Lavezzi and Pastore were both introduced for ten-minute cameos at the end of the match, and the former nearly netted with his second touch of the game, only to see the ball nick Moreira's studs and bounce agonisingly off the base of the goalkeeper's right hand post. Pastore didn't have much of a chance to impress, but he played some neat passes and flicks in his limited time on the pitch, some to greater effect than others.

The Ticos did have a chance to squeeze in a consolation goal as the game died down, with Sergio Romero forced into a superb stop by midfielder Jose Cubero in the 87th minute. The match took on a slightly sour tone as Lavezzi, frustrated by a rare poor Messi pass, scythed down Madrigal to earn himself a yellow card and a suspension for the next game, but when a non-starter being suspended for the quarterfinals is your only problem, you've had a very good day.

And as for Messi, I don't think that too many people are going to be complaining about his performance. He put in a shift today that Barcelona teammate Xavi would have been proud of and he, more than anyone else, can take credit for a sublime Argentina performance. Yes, they were only playing Costa Rica, and the win only secures second place in the group (behind Colombia), but considering their woeful incompetence so far in the Copa, that's something for them to celebrate.

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