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SPORTS | 03-07-2024 22:20

Argentina set sights on semis as Copa América knockout stage begins

Lionel Messi's fitness remains in doubt ahead of Thursday's Copa América quarter-final with Ecuador with Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni saying he will wait before deciding on his team.

World champions Argentina look to book their place in the last four of the Copa América when they open the knockout stage of the competition against Ecuador at NRG Stadium on Thursday.

The Argentines, defending champions and title favourites, enjoyed wins over Canada, Chile and Peru in the group stage where the solidity of Lionel Scaloni's side was evident throughout.

Confident at the back, well organised in midfield and with a constant threat down the flanks and in attack, Argentina still had to work hard for the points against Canada and Chile earning the opportunity to rest their starters for the 2-0 win over Peru on Saturday.

There remains a doubt over the fitness of Lionel Messi however, who sat out the win in Miami as he nursed a sore right hamstring.

Scaloni said they will assess Messi's condition after training on Wednesday evening and should the eight-times Ballon d'Or winner not be able to start, there could be an opportunity to see strikers Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez operate as a pair.

"Yesterday we had good feelings and we'll take this day to define the team based on the response we get today," he added.

Scaloni said he would consult with the 37-year-old Messi about his readiness for the game.

"We'll try to get him in and then, if he's not [ready], we'll look for the best solution for the team. I'll talk to him today. I think it's fair that he takes his time and trains as much as possible," he said.

Although he started on the bench in the first two games, Lautaro is the tournament's top scorer so far with four goals in three appearances.

Curiously, the most recent time that Inter Milan's Lautaro and Manchester City's Álvarez started together was against Ecuador in a pre-tournament friendly on June 9, which Albiceleste won 1-0.

"They've worked well and it's an option. But we will see how everyone is today, especially Leo, and we will see," said Scaloni.

"Lautaro is doing very well, in a good moment, the same as Julián. Lautaro has not only done well, but he has waited for his chance and that makes me very happy. They both scored goals, let's hope that streak continues tomorrow. We are satisfied with their contributions," he said.

Ecuador qualified for the quarter-finals ahead of Mexico and Jamaica but had suffered a defeat to Venezuela in their opening group B game.

Argentina have not lost to Ecuador since a World Cup qualifier in 2015 and have never been beaten by them in a Copa América clash.

But Scaloni is wary of reading too much into the head-to-head record.

"I don't believe in statistics, they are there to be broken. Let's hope not. Ecuador is a well-trained team, they have good players and a good coach. It is one of the good teams in the Copa América. It has a real chance of being able to fight for the Copa América. There are no games that are the same, even though we played recently," he said.

Ecuador's veteran striker and captain Enner Valencia, the country's all-time top scorer with 41 goals, certainly believes an upset is possible.

"They have a lot of experience, they've been working together for a long time. They are the best players in the world but we have a young squad but with a lot of personality, respecting our opponents but wanting to win," he said. 

Ecuador coach Félix Sánchez said he doesn't expect a radical change of approach from  Argentina – with or without Messi.

"We know we are playing a high-level team, Lionel Messi is the player that makes the difference and we have played against them with him and without him on the field," he said.

"Their gameplan doesn't change much – they are a group who have been with their head coach for a long time, they know their game plan and we have had to be ready either way," added the Spaniard.

Ecuador's best finish in a Copa América is fourth place, achieved in 1993 and 1959.

Friday sees surprise quarter-finalists Canada, who finished above Chile and Peru in Group A, take on Venezuela, who impressed with three wins from three to top Group B.

Colombia, who topped Group D ahead of Brazil, face Panama on Saturday in Arizona while the most mouth-watering clash in the last eight sees Marcelo Bielsa's Uruguay take on Brazil in Las Vegas.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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