Argentina 2-0 Peru: Messi watches from bench as Martinez leads Albiceleste to victory

Argentina 2-0 Peru: Messi watches from bench as Martinez leads Albiceleste to victory

The Floridian air was thick with anticipation – long with the humidity – Saturday as Miami, the home of Lionel Messi, set the perfect stage for Argentina’s group-stage Copa America finale against Peru. The only problem? The star of the show didn’t show.

Messi – the talismanic behind Argentina’s successes – was forced to watch his undefeated nation’s victory over Peru from the bench. His status had remained murky throughout the week, leaving fans in a state of nervous suspense, before ultimately the groin injury his sustained against Chile earlier in the week ruled him out.

Yet, even without their leading man, Argentina’s show went on as Lautaro Martinez’s brace fired the Albiceleste to a win and an undefeated spot atop Group A.

If Argentina were disheartened by the lack of their talisman they didn’t show it. Within the opening ten minutes they launched attack after attack in rapid succession. 

Angel Di Maria tested Pedro Gallese, before Nicolas Tagliafico forced the Peruvian goalkeeper into action again just seconds later, leading to a corner which was flashed across the face of goal.

Lautaro Martinez fired Argentina to a 2-0 win over Peru in the final Copa America group game

Argentina continued to threaten the Peruvian defense. Another free kick, this time from Leandro Paredes, was almost fumbled into goal by Gallese 26 minutes in before Giovani Lo Celso should have scored when Gonzalo Montiel squared it to him in the center of the box on the brink of halftime.

The reigning champions simply outpaced, outshot and outclassed their opponents with forward thinking and an authority in midfield that Peru could not chip away at.

But Gallese denied the Albiceleste time and time again, withstanding the barrage, to see Peru cling on at 0-0 heading into halftime – a scoreline, which far from reflected the dominant one-sided nature of the game.

Yet, that discordant score didn’t last long. It barely withstood two minutes of the second half when Di Maria played Martinez through. This time, there was no doubt. The Argentinian fans were already celebrating when the Inter Milan forward chipped over Gallese and into goal.

A second felt inevitable, yet out of reach. Tagliafico saw an attempt chalked off, while Paredes’ penalty in the 72nd minute ricocheted off the post. Finally came inthe 86th minute in the form of a Martinez double.

Argentina’s dominance should have reaped more reward than their two goals but if that was to the disappointment of the fans, they didn’t show it.

A roar echoed around the Hard Rock Stadium every time Messi flashed upon the big screen – even for a microsecond. The biggest cheers of the night and all for sitting on a bench.

But it was his replacement who merited the praise on the pitch. Alejandro Garnacho, replacing the injured Messi on the left, shone. His explosive bursts down the wing and teetering dribbling into the box was reminiscent of the icon – the only thing missing was the finishing.

Argentina's talismanic force, Lionel Messi, was forced to watch from the bench with injury

Argentina’s talismanic force, Lionel Messi, was forced to watch from the bench with injury 

No soccer fan wants to think about life after Messi. To the Argentinians, it’s an unbearable thought. But to those witnessing the humid Miami, the fate of Argentina was in good hands.

Messi was not the only absence. Even if the maestro had played it would have been without his conductor. Argentina was also without manager Lionel Scaloni, who was suspended for his halftime antics earlier in the week.

Replacement Walter Samuel also named a starting XI without Alexi Mac Allister, Rodrigo De Paul, Marcos Acuna and Julian Alvaraex. A testament to Argentina’s depth and future.

If this truly is to be Messi’s ‘Last Dance’ on the international stage – as the man himself expects it to be – Argentina proved Saturday that the show will go on.

In Miami’s sweltering heat, under the glare of the relentless scrutiny and heavy weight of both World Cup and Copa America crowns, Argentina was more than one star, it was a constellation.

Messi will have had nine days between matches to recover by the time Argentina plays its Copa America quarterfinal match between either Ecuador or Mexico on July 4 in Houston.

His return, combined with Scaloni’s arsenal of talent, Argentina are sure to battle through. The Miami masses may have missed out on the Messi show Saturday night, but how about a raincheck for the final on July 14?

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