Messi’s magic makes the difference

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JOY UNBOUND: Javier Mascherano (14) is hugged by team-mates after he netted Argentina’s lone goal against Paraguay on Thursday.
JOY UNBOUND: Javier Mascherano (14) is hugged by team-mates after he netted Argentina’s lone goal against Paraguay on Thursday.

Argentina in quarterfinals as the only team with a perfect record

Barquisimeto (Venezuela): An inspired piece of play by substitute Lionel Messi saw Argentina overcome Paraguay 1-0 on Thursday to finish atop Group C and charge into the Copa America football championship quarterfinals as the only team with a perfect record.

In Thursday’s other game, Colombia topped the winless United States 1-0 earlier to salvage some pride after both teams went into the final Group C match already eliminated.

No games are scheduled on Friday as the final eight prepare for the quarterfinal match-ups beginning on Saturday.

With both teams already qualified, Argentine coach Alfio Basile decided to rest several starters. But after a dull first half he yielded to the loud appeals for “Messi, Messi” by the sell-out crowd of 37,000 and sent the Barcelona striker on in the 66th minute, replacing Esteban Cambiasso.

Good pass

The 20-year old phenomenon didn’t disappoint, deceiving a Paraguayan defender before sending a centring pass that found Javier Mascherano, who buried a shot to the right of goalkeeper Aldo Bobadilla for Argentina’s winning goal in the 78th minute.

Prior to the goal, Carlos Tevez and Rodrigo Palacio also came close to scoring with shots that ricocheted off the woodwork.

With the win, Argentina finishes with nine points and stays in Barquisimeto to receive Peru on Sunday, with injured striker Hernan Crespo the only absentee. Paraguay, with six points, must travel 1,000km to Maturin to face Mexico, which as a guest to the tournament has been in good form here, including beating five-time World Cup champion Brazil.

Argentina brought its biggest European-based stars to these South American championships in Venezuela, aiming to claim a record 15th Copa title and break the tie with Uruguay for the most championship crowns. In a rematch of their group matches, host Venezuela plays Uruguay in San Cristobal and Brazil takes on Chile in Puerto La Cruz in the other two quarterfinal matches on Saturday. Venezuela and Uruguay had a scoreless draw in their group game, while Brazil beat Chile.

Pride salvaged

Earlier, Jaime Castrillon scored with a header in the 14th minute as a mostly second-string Colombia prevailed over the United States to gain some measure of pride.

Colombia entered this 12-nation tournament with genuine ambitions for the title. But after letting in nine goals in two matches against Argentina and Paraguay, coach Jorge Luis Pinto chose to go with a less experienced squad against the U.S. The win allows him to return to Bogota with his head a little higher, but his future as coach of the “cafeteros” may be in doubt according to reports in the Colombian media.

Coming off its Gold Cup championship win over Mexico, American coach Bob Bradley brought an inexperienced squad to Venezuela, looking to test formations ahead of the World Cup qualifiers in spring.

That decision drew criticism from event organisers after the U.S. team scored just two goals in the tournament, one being a penalty.

The results: Copa America: Argentina 1 (Mascherano) bt Paraguay 0; Colombia 1 (Castillon) bt USA 0. — AP

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