Argentina started hot and kept on rolling all night long, steamrolling Venezuela 4-1 thanks to a first half brace from Gonzalo Higuain and a sumptuous performance from Lionel Messi. One of the upset surprises of the tournament is gone with Venezuela's loss, and now Argentina have a date with the United States in the Copa America Centenario semifinals.
The match got off to a flying start for Argentina, who took the game to Venezuela from the first whistle and were quickly up a goal because of it. Lionel Messi, making his first start of the tournament, served up an absolutely divine ball to Gonzalo Higuain, who hit it low on the half volley to put his country up 1-0 with one of the best goals of the tournament so far.
After that saw a long spell of domination from Argentina, though Venezuela had a few half chances here and there. Those half-chances didn't amount to anything, though, and Argentina continued to dominate possession and play high up the pitch, putting more and more pressure on Venezuela's defense until they finally broke.
A poor pass back to center back Wilker Angel was easily read and intercepted by Higuain, who blew past Angel, rounded goalkeeper Daniel Hernandez with ease, and slotted home his second goal of the match, giving his country a lead that Venezuela would be hard-pressed to overcome, having failed to score more than one goal in any match during the Copa so far.
That wouldn't keep Venezuela from fighting back, though, and they managed to put together a relentless spell of pressure of their own. They forced Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero to make some fabulous saves late in the first half, and ultimately forced him into a mistake, taking down Josef Martinez in front of goal to give Venezuela a penalty -- one that Luis Seijas would screw up embarrassingly, telegraphing his intent for a panenka and then not even getting a good shot off in his effort as Romero easily saved it.
Things didn't go much better for Venezuela in the second half, struggling again to get their attack sorted out while Argentina largely passed around them. Lionel Messi scored their third goal of the game on the hour mark, off a lovely bit of combination play with Gonzalo Higuain and Nicolas Gaitan. The Albiceleste actually seemed to get a bit lazy for a bit after that goal, being too at ease with their three-goal lead and allowing Venezuela to put together another spell of attacking play.
That spell lead to a goal from Salomon Rondon ten minutes later, a solid strike that gave Venezuela a narrow hope of coming back to put pressure on Argentina -- a hope that was dashed less than a minute later when a bad defensive breakdown saw Erik Lamela score Argentina's fourth.
That was effectively it for the match. Venezuela were deflated and Argentina were on cruise control, and the final score was 4-1. The result sends Venezuela home after their first loss in the Copa, and sends Argentina barreling on to a date on Tuesday with the United States, who got this far after beating Ecuador in the quarterfinals. That should be an interesting match -- the USMNT have been good in the Copa America so far, but Argentina are far, far better than anyone they've faced. With Messi and Higuain rolling, Argentina are going to be very confident heading into that match.
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Otamendi, Ramiro Funes Mori, Marcos Rojo; Augusto Fernandez, Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega (Lucas Biglia 80'); Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain (Sergio Aguero 74'), Nicolas Gaitan (Erik Lamela 67')
Goals: Higauin (8', 28'), Messi (60'), Lamela (71')
Venezuela: Daniel Hernandez; Alexander Gonzalez, Wilker Angel, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, Rolf Feltscher; Alejadro Guerra, Tomas Rincon (Jose Velazquez 84'), Arquimedes Figueroa, Luis Seijas (Juan Pablo Añor 55'); Josef Martinez (Yonatan Del Valle 80'), Salomon Rondon
Goals: Rondon (70')
Four things we learned
Sergio Romero deserves a starting job for a good club
Just look at Romero's saves in the first half and you'll see that he deserves a lot more than a backup job. While it looked for a bit like he could be Manchester United's starting goalkeeper last year, the transfer that would have taken David De Gea to Real Madrid falling apart put a quick end to that. This summer, he deserves a move to a team that will better appreciate what he has to offer, in goal, because Romero is legitimately one of the better goalkeepers around -- he just needs a good break with a club side to prove it, instead of his usual bad luck.
Venezuela lost because they struggle to chase a lead
Early in the tournament, people were wondering how a team with just one point in South America's World Cup qualifying could be enjoying so much success. Against Argentina, we learned why they've struggled in qualifying: they don't do nearly as well when they're chasing a lead.
Venezuela's early success in the tournament came when they were scoring early goals and then setting themselves up to absorb pressure. This time around, the shoe was on the other foot -- Argentina caught them out on one of their early pushes and got the first goal, and Venezuela struggled to answer it. They gave up a second before they could get themselves organized again, and even after Venezuela had started looking better again, they gave up a third. Sure, they'd get one back themselves eventually, but it became clear that Venezuela aren't nearly as good or dangerous when they're chasing a lead as they are when the score is even or if they're ahead.
Yes, this was Argentina, and anyone would struggle to come back against them. But this Venezuela side clearly weren't equipped to go chasing after going down, and they're out of the Copa America because of it.
If you're going to try for a panenka penalty, you'd better make sure it works
When Venezuela earned a penalty just before half time, Luis Seijas thought he would be clever and go for a panenka, a cheeky lob up the middle intended to go over a goalkeeper who's diving to one side. Instead, he under hit his shot and apparently telegraphed his intent, because Sergio Romero hardly had to move to grab it. Not only did Venezuela not cut Argentina's lead to 2-1 as hoped, but Seijas looked like an utter fool for his efforts. Either make sure it goes in, or go for something else.
Want to know what USMNT fans were thinking during this match?
That moment when you realize that the #USMNT has to face Messi & Argentina. #CopaAmerica pic.twitter.com/L4uYhNCQws— Sarah Lerner (@SarahLerner) June 19, 2016
That semifinal is NOT going to be fun.