JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 12: Argentina fans show their colours as they arrive for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group B match between Argentina and Nigeria at Ellis Park Stadium on June 12, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Lionel Messi Steals Show As Argentina Win 3-0

After two disappointing draws, Argentina are in needed a big win against Costa Rica to ensure passage into the Copa America quarterfinals. They got it, thanks to a masterful display by Lionel Messi.

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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.


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Angel Di Maria Nets, Makes It 3-0 Argentina

It's the Lionel Messi show tonight, and although he doesn't have any goals he could quite easily have five or six assists. He's absolutely running the game from the midfield, slicing Costa Rica open at will, and the only reason Argentina aren't ahead by a silly number of goals is that Gonzalo Higuain's finishing ability appears to have gone the way of the dodo. It was Messi, of course, who slipped the Real Madrid forward in with the hosts 2-0 up in the second half, only for Higuain to blaze over Leonel Moreira's crossbar. Fortunately for Argentina, the Barcelona star would pick a better target with his next pass.

Angel di Maria had been a relatively peripheral figure in a game dominated by Sergio Aguero, Messi, and Higuain, but he controlled a pass from Messi brilliantly, his first touch taking him past a pair of Costa Rica defenders and setting him up for a shot. The angle wasn't particularly promising, but he swung his left boot and unleashed a howitzer that screamed past Moreira at his near post, giving Argentina a 3-0 lead. It was Messi's second assist of the match. Think there'll be any complaints about how the world's best player doesn't turn up in international matches anymore?


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa RIca: Sergio Aguero Scores A Second For 2-0 Lead

It took two and a half matches, but it looks like Lionel Messi has finally found someone who can finish all of those chances he's been creating at Copa America. He has been sublime, playing beautiful ball after beautiful ball only for teammates to waste chances, but Sergio Aguero finally made one of those chances count. The Atletico Madrid man finished on a great pass from Messi in the 52nd minute for his second goal of the match to put Argentina up 2-0 on Costa Rica.

A great passing sequence got Messi the ball 30 yards out, straight away with the Costa Rica team scrambling to get back. He spotted Aguero making a run in behind the Ticos' defense and slipped the ball through right onto Aguero's foot. Aguero calmly slotted the ball past the keeper to the back post and Argentina had themselves a two-goal advantage.

Argentina needs three points from this match to clinch advancement to the knockout stages. A draw will leave Argentina dependent on Venezuela defeating Paraguay tomorrow so the two-goal lead is absolutely gigantic for the hosts.


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Sergio Aguero Has Hosts In Front At Half

Argentina entered their final group stage match against Costa Rica facing an unbelievable amount of pressure. If being hosts and favorites don't put enough pressure on a team, Argentina were dealing with rumors of infighting and after draws in their first two matches, they were facing elimination in the group stage. Such a shocking elimination might actually cause rioting in the country so the Argentina team had the weight of their world on their shoulders and they played like it. They dominated Costa Rica, only to fail when it came to finishing. That is until Sergio Aguero scored just before half to put Argentina in front, 1-0, at halftime.

The two disappointing draws forced Argentina to make changes to their team with four new faces coming into the starting XI, Aguero being one of them. The changes did not include Sergio Pastore getting a start, something that left manager Sergio Batista vulnerable to plenty of criticism if Argentina did not advance.

From the very beginning Argentina were the better team. They got the ball to Lionel Messi every chance they could and he was sensational. He danced his way around the Costa Rica defense and put teammate after teammate in position to score. Unfortunately, he teammates let him down time and time again. One chance hit the post, several others didn't even come close to hitting the frame. For all of their better play and the brilliance of the world's best player, Argentina looked set to go into halftime without anything to show for it.

That changed on the last play of the half when Fernando Gago ripped a shot from distance. It took a deflection on the way in and with the goalkeeper already committed to diving at the initial shot, the ball went off of his legs and into the path of Aguero. The Atletico madrid striker had no problem finishing into the empty net, causing the entire stadium to explode in celebrations. The Ticos turned to the assistant referee asking for offiside, but replays showed Aguero to be even with the last defender and the goal a good one.


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Sergio Aguero Breaks Deadlock

It took nearly the entire first half, but Argentina finally have the goal they deserve. Just before the referee blew the whistle for halftime, Sergio Aguero jumped on a rebound and knocked it home to put Argentina on top and put the hosts on track to avoid a disaster. After draws in their first two matches, Argentina needs a win over Costa Rica tonight to avoid elimination, something that could send the entire country into a rage. With Aguero's goal though, Argentina are ahead 1-0 and look set to get the result they need.

Argentina's 1-0 lead is completely deserved. They were the far superior team for all 45 minutes, frequently getting the ball to Lionel Messi, who was brilliant. His teammates let him down at times in not finishing, but Argentina were always in control. The scoreboard finally reflected that when Fernando Gago's shot from distance was deflected and bounced off the legs of the goalkeeper, right into Aguero's path. Aguero just knocked it into the empty net and the entire stadium erupted as Argentina went in front.


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Late Lineup Change For Costa Rica

Costa Rica needs just a draw in their final group stage match to advance to the knockout stages of Copa America, something that would be quite an accomplishment considering that they are playing with their under-22 team. The problem is that they have to get that draw against Argentina, one of the most talented teams in the tournament and the hosts. Now a late lineup change makes things just a little more difficult for Costa Rica.

In the original lineup Diego Madrigal was on the left side of the midfield for the Ticos in their 3-5-2, but they've made a chance and inserted Cesar Elizondo in his place. With both being natural forwards this doesn't change much in terms of formation and style of play for Costa Rica. No reason was given for the late change.

Costa Rica: Leonel Moreira; Francisco Calvo, Jose Salvatierra, Jhonny Acosta; Cesar Elizondo, Jose Miguel Cubero, Heiner Mora, Pedro Leal, Oscar Duarte; Joel Campbell, Josue Martinez


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Lineups

Two matches in and Argentina are still looking for their first win of Copa America. That's absolutely shocking for a team so loaded with talent and playing on home soil, but as they head into tonight's group stage finale against they need a win over Costa Rica to clinch advancement to the knockout stages. A draw and they will have to hope Venezuela defeats Paraguay and a loss ends their tournament. Costa Rica can clinch advancement with a win or a draw tonight.

Argentina have made changes to their lineup, starting Fernando Gago, Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain for the first time this tournament. With the changes in personnel comes a change in formation as well as they shift to a 4-2-3-1 instead of the 4-3-3 they played in their first two matches.

Costa Rica is going with a more defensive lineup. While it looks more attack-minded with only three at the back, they are playing two natural defenders in holding midfield roles and will drop both outside midfielders back into the defense at every opportunity. The Ticos know they are overmatched in talent, but only need a draw to advance and are playing accordingly.

Argentina (4-2-3-1): Sergio Romero; Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolas Burdisso, Gabriel Milito, Javier Zanetti; Fernando Gago, Javier Mascherano; Sergio Agüero, Lionel Messi, Angel di María; Gonzalo Higuaín

Costa Rica (3-5-2): Leonel Moreira; Francisco Calvo, Jose Salvatierra, Jhonny Acosta; Diego Madrigal, Jose Miguel Cubero, Heiner Mora, Pedro Leal, Oscar Duarte; Joel Campbell, Josue Martinez


Copa America 2011, Argentina Vs. Costa Rica: Lionel Messi, Albiceleste Fight For Life Against Sub-22 Ticos

All that stands between Argentina and their redemption is Costa Rica's second team. After two poor performances to open the 2011 Copa America, Lionel Messi and the Albiceleste will make it through to the quarterfinals of the competition in second place in Group A if they can just defeat Costa Rica's Olympic team, one that includes none of Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges, and so on. Seems simple, right?

Well, defeating Bolivia seemed simple as well. Thanks to a lack of creativity in the midfield, leaving Messi to work himself into the ground trying to be himself and Xavi Hernandez at the exact same time, Argentina drew Bolivia 1-1. After a terrible error gifted Bolivia a goal, Argentina only scraped a point through a Sergio Aguero wonder strike. 

Even with that poor performance against Bolivia, Sergio Batista changed exactly nothing in his front six for the match against Colombia. Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega, and Esteban Cambiasso once again made up the starting midfield, while Ezequiel Lavezzi and Carlos Tevez started up top with Messi. Cambiasso, Tevez, and Lavezzi were ineffective. Again.

Will Batista learn from his mistakes on Monday? Even if he doesn't, Argentina might be able to scrape by. Yes, Costa Rica kept it close against Colombia and defeated Bolivia, but this is a fairly average team. Saprissa forwards Joel Campbell and Josue Martinez might be future starters for the first choice national team, but they are not good enough to earn that distinction at present. Costa Rica shouldn't be able to get a result Monday night.

But, of course, Bolivia shouldn't have been able to get a result. Venezuela shouldn't have been able to draw Brazil. Peru shouldn't have been able to draw Uruguay. This tournament has been wildly unpredictable, so making a prediction on the result of this game would be ridiculous.

However, there's one game-related prediction we can make. If Argentina are eliminated from Copa America in the group stages, Sergio Batista probably won't have a job come August.

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