Messi is Messi: Argentina beats U.S. 4 - 0

By Updated at 2016-06-22 06:58:44 +0000


HOUSTON -- Lionel Messi and top-ranked Argentina were even better than advertised in Tuesday's Copa America semifinal, grabbing the lead against the host U.S. just three minutes in before Messi's inch-perfect free kick put the outcome beyond doubt well before halftime.

The eventual 4-0 win -- Gonzalo Higuain added two more goals after the break -- puts the Albiceleste into Sunday's final in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where they will meet the winner of Wednesday's semifinal in Chicago between Chile and Colombia.

Here are three quick thoughts on Tuesday's rout.

1. U.S. not up to the task versus Argentina

It was always a given heading into the contest at sold-out NRG Stadium that if the Americans were going to have any chance at all of pulling off the upset against the No. 1 team in FIFA's rankings, they'd have to perform close to their best, while also hoping for an off night from the visitors. That idea went out the window quickly, as Messi's pretty chip pass found Ezequiel Lavezzi behind the American back line for an easy header before those in attendance had even settled into their seats.

The first goal was always going to be huge in this game, and once the short-handed Americans (without suspended starters Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood) were forced to chase the game, they couldn't hold onto the ball on the rare occasions that they had it. The U.S. completed just 63 percent of their passes in the first half and didn't manage a single shot on goal -- Argentina's movement, control and cohesion was that good.

Earlier in the week, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said that sometimes elite teams teach you a lesson. That's certainly what his team got.

2. Messi shows why he's the world's best player

Few things in life truly live up to the billing, but Argentina's No. 10 is one of them. Barcelona's diminutive magician came into this Copa nursing a rib injury that kept him out of Argentina's first match, a 2-1 win over Chile on June 6. He played 29 minutes in their next one, scoring a hat trick off the bench against Panama, and then went 45 minutes against Bolivia in the group stage before making his first start (and picking up a goal and two assists) against Venezuela in the quarterfinals.

Tuesday was his best performance yet.

Messi didn't dominate the way he does so often for Barcelona, but there was no denying his impact on the result. Despite all the talk from the American side about not allowing him space and making things difficult, they simply couldn't. Nobody among the 70,858 fans in the house will forget witnessing his 32nd-minute curler settle into the top right corner of Brad Guzan's net. He notched another helper on Higuain's second goal, which came four minutes before full-time.

After club teammate Neymar skipped this tournament to play for Brazil in the Rio Olympics and injury prevented another Barca striker, Luis Suarez of Uruguay, from playing a single minute, Messi more than delivered the entertainment in their absences. Now he'll get another chance to hoist his first major trophy for his country's senior squad.

3. Klinsmann's Wondolowski decision backfires

Klinsmann is usually good for one lineup curveball, and true to form, he surprised many by inserting 33-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski up top in place of Wood.

The idea might have been to keep continuity by not pulling Gyasi Zardes, who had spent the previous four games in the midfield, out of his spot on the wing. It didn't work. Not only was Wondolowski unable to get on the end of the one half-chance he had, he picked up a yellow card in committing the foul that led to Messi's back-breaking strike. Not surprisingly, he was replaced by 17-year-old Christian Pulisic before the second half began.

"You have to take risks," Klinsmann said ahead of the game on Monday. With the benefit of hindsight, this is one gamble the coach would probably want back.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.