Martinez saves Messi blushes as Argentina reach semis

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Houston, July 6: Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was the hero, saving two penalties and Lionel Messi’s blushes as holders Argentina defeated Ecuador in a penalty shoot-out to book their place in the Copa America semi-finals on Thursday.

A Lisandro Martinez header had put world champions Argentina 1-0 up ten minutes before half-time but Kevin Rodriguez headed in a stoppage-time leveller for Ecuador, who had risen to the occasion in front of 69,456 fans at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Messi missed the opening penalty, chipping against the bar, but thanks to heroics from Martinez, Argentina recovered to win the shoot-out 4-2 and progress into the semi-finals where they will face the winner of Friday’s match between Venezuela and Canada.

Messi’s botched ‘panenka’ brought back memories of his miss in the shoot-out loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa final but luckily for him goalkeeper Martinez was in the mood to repeat his own past.

He pulled off superb diving saves to deny Angel Mena and Alan Minda and get his team in front before Nicolas Otamendi slotted home the decisive fourth kick.

It was a major scare for the tournament favourites but not for the first time they had their goalkeeper to thank for the relief of victory

Martinez had saved three spot-kicks in a 3–2 penalty shootout victory for Argentina over Colombia in the semi-final of the 2021 Copa America and famously saved two in the World Cup final win against France in Qatar.

‘Deserved to continue’

“I told the lads before the shootout that I wasn’t ready to go home, this team deserves to go all the way to the final,” the goalkeeper told Argentine television after the team had celebrated on the field.

“I feel so connected to the people, I had my family nearby and these are special moments. This group deserved to continue, it’s exciting,” he said.

Ecuador were left crestfallen after a match in which they had created enough opportunities to have won the game.

“We are digesting the defeat,” said Spanish coach Sanchez, who despite coming so close was pleased with the way his young side had pushed the Argentines all the way.

“Overall, the balance is positive We played the toughest opponents and we have shown that the team can compete against everyone. I’m happy with this group of players. They want to do well and give joy to the fans,” he said. (AFP)

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