Paraguay came into the Copa America semifinals looking for a fight. It's who they are. It's how they managed to beat Brazil. Rough up the opposition enough to stifle their creativity and then steal a goal or two. And the plan would have worked, if Argentina didn't punch them in the nose as soon as the match started. More than that, Argentina are so spoiled with attacking riches that this match -- a 6-1 win for the Albiceleste -- wasn't even fair to begin with.
Coming into the game, Lionel Messi was insistent that Argentina needs an edginess about them. Every opponent that they have played so far has employed the tactic of leaving stud marks on their heels and thighs. If you can't beat them, beat them up. The referees allowing the Gladiator tactics gave the teams extra impetus in their quest. Argentina couldn't complain forever, eventually they would have to get their hands dirty as well.
Against Paraguay, no shirt was left clean. Faces were covered in blades of grass and bodies were bruised and battered. There was an entire team of Javier Mascheranos on the pitch. Snapping at the feet of their opposition, throwing their bodies at every shot and sliding to and into any open man. They were out-fighting the team known especially for their fight.
More than that, they were just much more talented. Looking at the attacking talents of Argentina is like staring into Scrooge McDuck's money pit. If it was a club team, they would be criticized for stock-piling talent. It seemed patently cruel and unusual to watch Javier Pastore walk off the pitch, only to be subbed for Ever Banega. And for Sergio Aguero to do the same and be replaced by Gonzalo Higuain. It's a collection of the world's best strikers and playmakers. They were eventually going to figure out this truth and demolish teams, even if Tata Martino is hell-bent on making it as difficult as possible.
And who did Paraguay have? A grizzled Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios and Nelson Haedo Valdez? No chance.
The first goal was unexpected. Not that it happened but from the source. Argentina won a free-kick on the left byline and Messi floated the ball into the far post. The cross missed the head of the first few men and fell at the feet of Marcos Rojo, who while falling, managed to dispatch the ball into the net with his left foot. Funny enough, he was scythed down as he scored, suggesting that it would have been a penalty had it not gone in.
The match was decided then and all was left was to decide just how much Argentina would win by.
Javier Pastore, who had been knocking at Paraguay's door then finally remembered just how skillful he is. His inclusion in this team can not be overstated. During the Messi era, Argentina has lacked another star who could bear the burden when Messi is targeted. Not that there aren't flashy names in the team but few can create as well as the world's best player. So as that was the case, when Messi wasn't scoring and creating the goals, the team would suffer.
Pastore is the antidote to that issue. The PSG man is elegant, elusive and has the vision and creativity to rival anyone in the world. When Messi drops deep, he moves ahead to receive passes and pick apart defenses. And when the Barcelona man is running, he is drifting away to the sides to apply the finishes.
On the second goal they connected. Messi received the ball deep and just as he looked up, Pastore was making an angled run into a small pocket of space between the midfield and defense. The ball comes, he takes one touch forward to step in front of the midfielder closing down and away from the sliding defender. Then another touch to apply the finish into the left bottom corner.
But of course Argentina wouldn't be themselves without some ridiculous blunder: Bruno Valdez intercepted an attempted clearance and head it into the path of Lucas Barrios who blasted the ball past Sergio Romero. Martin Demichelis was so far away from the striker that the camera didn't catch him till after the goal.
That would be a mere blemish on an impervious performance though. Pastore once again received the ball in the attacking third and in the blink of an eye, send Angel Di Maria through. The Manchester United man finished calmly and the count-up was on.
Messi began to free himself and once again did the unreasonable for the third goal. Receiving the ball on the left, he cut in to the center after beating one man. With a defender on his back and another one approaching, he somehow managed to nutmeg to onrushing man while he was slide-tackling and ultimately turned the both of them into a human Jenga puzzle as he beat them both. He then laid the ball off to Pastore who missed, only for the rebound to be put in by the radiating Di Maria. It was a startling example of just how all-powerful Argentina is.
Di Maria crossed the ball for the fifth goal as Sergio Aguero snuck in the midst of three defenders to head the ball in. Higuain then came on and within moments, Messi is supplying him with a through ball while on the floor and he's applying the finish for the sixth.
It would have been embarrassing if it was unexpected. But Argentina is just heads and shoulders above any team in the competition. The only hope that Paraguay had and that Chile has is to try to fight them. Outplaying them is out of the question. The problem now is that Argentina are willing to get in the ring as well; they've adopted the approach of the bullies while maintaining their dominance in talent.
The Copa America trophy is just one game away now. And though it is not the World Cup trophy that they barely missed out on last summer, it will go a long way in healing the wound. The team is burgeoning with stars, their talisman is at his creative best and they've finally decided to bloody their nose for the cause. Paraguay had no chance and Chile will be dispatched in the same manner if Argentina are able to replicate this performance for one more night.