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SPORTS | 20-06-2024 22:47

Holders Argentina grind out 2-0 win over Canada in Copa opener

Holders Argentina beat Canada 2-0 in opening game of Copa América; Julián Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez get the goals as wasteful Argentina grind out a win.

World champions Argentina opened their bid for back-to-back Copa América titles with a 2-0 win over Canada in front of a 70,564 crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday.

Julián Álvarez put Argentina ahead in the 49th minute but a combination of inspired goalkeeping from Canada's Max Crepeau and Lionel Messi's surprising lack of precision in front of goal ensured that the underdogs were in the game until Lautaro Martínez settled the contest in the 88th minute.

Backed by a huge support decked out in light-blue-and-white-striped shirts, Argentina deserved their victory but Canada, ranked 48th in the world, can take plenty of credit for the way they fought with the 15-time Copa América winners.

Álvarez, preferred to Lautaro as Messi's strike partner in attack, had the first opportunity when he charged down an attempted clearance from Ismael Kone and broke away.

But the Manchester City striker took a heavy touch as he bore down on Crepeau, who was able to smother the ball.

Messi, who became the most capped player in Copa América history, making his 35th appearance in what is his seventh tournament, then went close to an opener himself but his angled shot from the left flashed just wide of the far post.

While the Argentines were exploiting gaps in the Canadian defence, Jesse Marsch's team were nonetheless competing in midfield and creating some half-chances for themselves.

Alphonso Davies and Liam Millar both had shots blocked inside the box and Tajon Buchanan screwed an effort from a tight angle wide in the 30th minute.

The first true save of the game came in the 40th minute, though, when Alexis Mac Allister's stooping header from an Ángel Di María cross was well dealt with by Crepeau.

But Argentina needed their goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez, to be at his very best to ensure they went in on level terms at the interval.

Cyle Larin's cross from the right wing was met with a powerful header from close-range from Stephen Eustaquio but Martínez's sharp reaction save kept the game goalless.

 

Break deadlock

But it took less than four minutes of the second half for Argentina to break the deadlock – Messi threaded a pass through to Mac Allister, who was brought down by Crepeau, but before the referee could blow his whistle Álvarez had slotted home the loose ball.

Within moments, there was another chance for Álvarez, but this time denied by the diving Crepeau and Canada could live to fight on.

They did so with more urgency and a little more risk after Marsch introduced winger Jacob Shaffelburg and switched to an attacking 4-3-3 formation.

Suddenly the Argentine defence was under pressure and didn't look at all comfortable as Canada got men forward and exploited the wide areas.

But they were almost caught out with a classic counter-attack as Martínez launched a quick long ball towards Messi, who broke way goalwards but with the crowd expecting to see the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner on target he made a hash of the chance.

His initial effort was parried by Crepeau and although Messi latched on to the loose ball and sought to go round the keeper, his shot was easily cleared by the covering Derek Cornelius.

Incredibly there was another great opportunity for the former Barcelona star to find the target and again he was unable to convert -- cutting in from the right with only Crepeau to beat, Messi opened up his body but slid his shot wide of the post.

Crepeau was at his best again to keep out substitute Lautaro as Argentina struggled to put the game to bed but with two minutes of normal time remaining they did just that.

Messi produced another clinical, defence-splitting pass and this time Lautaro made no mistake, slipping past the advancing Crepeau to make it 2-0.

 

Scaloni angry at pitch

Lionel Scaloni hit out at the temporary grass surface installed for Thursday's Copa América opener against Canada saying it was unsuited for a major tournament game.

The field at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer's Atlanta United, is made of artificial turf but organisers installed grass sod on top for this tournament.

"Thank goodness we won, because otherwise it would have been a cheap excuse to sit here and say this but we've known we were going to play here for seven months and they changed the surface two days ago," said Scaloni.

"It's not good for the spectacle. I'm sorry, it's not an excuse, but it's not a pitch. The stadium is beautiful and with the synthetic turf it should be spectacular, but with the [grass] turf today. Honestly, it's not suitable for this kind of players," he said.

The grass was installed after Atlanta United's last home game on June 15. Scaloni said the surface made it difficult for his team to play their normal game and take the tactical approach he prefers.

"They were not feeling confident with the poor condition of the pitch, they couldn’t make the passes that they wanted. Given the poor condition of the pitch there wasn’t much we could do," he said.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez also took aim at the surface in his post-match comments.

"Coming here, against a strong Canada, who have good strikers, good players, on a pitch that is a disaster, made it a bit difficult for us," said the keeper.

Martínez said the ball was bobbling on the surface and said it was a prestige issue for the tournament.

"We have to improve in that aspect. If not, the Copa América will always be at a slightly lower level than the European Championship," he said.

 

Record-breaker

Messi became the most-capped player in Copa América history on Thursday as he reached 35 appearances in the opening match of the tournament against Canada.

The 36-year-old had shared the record with Chilean goalkeeper Sergio Livingstone (34 caps) since appearing in the final of the 2021 Copa América in Brazil, where Argentina triumphed.

Messi's appearances have been spread across seven editions of the Copa, starting with the 2007 tournament in Venezuela.

The eight-times Ballon d'Or winner could set more records in this year's competition – he needs four goals to tie compatriot Norberto Mendez and Brazil's Zizinho as all-time Copa América scorer with 17 goals.

Should Argentina win the tournament, Messi would also become the first captain to win back-to-back tournaments.

 

Details

Copa América - United States - 2024 - Group A - First round of fixtures
Argentina - Canadá  2 - 0 (0-0)

Stadium: Mercedes Benz (Atlanta, Georgia)
Referee: Jesús Valenzuela (Venezuela)

Goals
Argentina: Julián Alvarez (49), Lautaro Martínez (88)

Bookings
Argentina: Rodrigo De Paul (61), Giovani Lo Celso (90+1)
Canadá: Ismael Kone (81), Derek Cornelius (90+4)

Line-ups

Argentina: Emiliano Martínez - Nahuel Molina (Gonzalo Montiel, 89), Cristian Romero, Lisandro Martínez, Marcos Acuña (Nicolás Tagliafico, 89) - Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes (Nicolás Otamendi, 77), Alexis Mac Allister - Lionel Messi, Julián Álvarez (Lautaro Martínez, 77) y Ángel Di María (Giovani Lo Celso, 68). Coach: Lionel Scaloni.

Canadá: Maxime Crepeau - Alistair Johnston, Moise Lumpungu, Derek Cornelius, Alphonso Davies - - Tajon Buchanan (Jacob Shaffelburg, 59), Ismael Kone (Jonathan Osorio, 85), Stephen Eustáquio, Liam Millar (Jacen Russell-Rowe, 85) - Jonathan David, Cyle Larin (Richie Laryea, 80). Coach: Jesse Marsch.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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