The first moment of truth has arrived for Argentina. After sailing through their Copa América group, Lionel Messi and Co now face Ecuador in the quarter-finals, aware that just one slip, just one off-day, will be enough to send them home from Brazil. The pressure is on, but judging by the events of the last two weeks the Albiceleste are on the right track to continue their progress in the competition into the last four and beyond.
Aside from that rather muted debut against Chile, Lionel Scaloni's men were hardly troubled as they finished top of Group A with three wins and a draw. That haul of 10 points was exactly the same as managed by Brazil, whose only stumble came against none other than Ecuador, albeit while resting much of Tite's regular starting XI. Argentina's coach too took the opportunity to rotate his troops along the way in the protracted first round, a strategy which allowed many players to catch a breath – although captain Lionel Messi, by all accounts at his own request, refused to miss even a minute for his nation – and also threw up a number of interesting selection dilemmas as the second-stringers made the most of their chance.
Alejandro 'Papu' Gómez, in particular, is straining for inclusion. The Sevilla winger had played exactly one minute under Scaloni prior to making his first Argentina start since October 2017 against Paraguay. Nine minutes later he was wheeling away in celebration after latching on to Ángel Di María's brilliant pass and finishing past Guaraní goalkeeper Anthony Silva. He kept his place for the Albiceleste's last group run-out and repeated the feat, waiting just five minutes before defeating Carlos Lampe in the Bolivia net, this time with Messi playing him in with one of his trademark chipped passes. It looks set to come down to a straight choice between Gómez and Nicolás González for the last attacking spot alongside the captain and Lautaro Martínez, another of the scorers on Monday, with González's physical abilities and sacrifice in defence at least giving him a fighting chance of inclusion when weighed against his rival's brilliant recent form.
Further back, Argentina's hopes received a big boost during the week when Cristian Romero was cleared fit to play. Atalanta's centre-back only made his début in June but now appears an old hand at international football, quickly becoming established ahead of the likes of Nicolás Otamendi and Lucas Martínez Quarta as the first defensive name on Scaloni's team-sheet. Similarly, Emiliano Martínez should have no concerns over his place on goal despite giving way to Franco Armani for the Bolivia game, despite the clamours of River Plate fans who attempted to crown their hero with the Man of the Match award as he wiled away the most tranquil of evenings and barely faced a shot.
The record books at least are in the Albiceleste's favour. Ecuador have never managed a win in 15 Copa America meetings to date, while the last Copa clash between the two, in 2004, ended in a brilliant 6-1 victory for the side then coached by Marcelo Bielsa. Ecuador may have squeezed out of their group, and the arrival of ex-Boca Juniors boss Gustavo Alfaro has made them a tough side to break down; but the Tricolor nevertheless went through the entire first round without victory and have won just three games in the last seven editions of this tournament, the most recent coming against minnows Haiti in 2016.
If Argentina anticipate a smooth path into the semis, though, they are sorely mistaken. Alfaro's charges will be desperate to inflict an upset and, as quick around the pitch and direct as ever, they have enough about them to catch the favourites off-guard should they lose concentration or allow themselves to be caught too far up-field. The one real failing the Albiceleste have shown over this Copa, moreover, is that they struggle to keep up their rhythm for the full 90 or even, at times, 45 minutes; now is the time to maintain that brilliant intensity with which they are starting games and ensure there will be no shocks in store for a team slowly coming together and gaining confidence.