Messi and Alvarez guide Argentina to Copa America final

Messi and Alvarez guide Argentina to Copa America final

As dark clouds converged over the swamps of New Jersey, a couple of figures stood out from the crowds streaming into MetLife Stadium.

They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were smartly dressed, as ever. And they hovered near the gates in the hope that some people might be for turning. There was only one problem – the tens of thousands of Argentina fans who flocked here have already chosen their God.

And for the next few hours they sung his name and they bowed in his direction. Even at 37, even after struggling with injury, even after missing a penalty in the quarter final, Lionel Messi continues to repay that devotion.

He was not at his mesmerizing best here but he scored the decisive second goal as Argentina beat Canada to reach the final of Copa America.

What a time to find his first goal of the tournament. Messi is now the second highest scorer in international soccer history – behind only Cristiano Ronaldo; Lionel Scaloni’s side are now one game away from winning a third successive major tournament.

Lionel Messi celebrates with his teammates after doubling Argentina’s lead in the semifinal

Julian Alvarez scored the opening goal for Argentina after meeting Rodrigo de Paul's pass

Julian Alvarez scored the opening goal for Argentina after meeting Rodrigo de Paul’s pass

Julian Alvarez set them on the road to Miami – Messi’s adopted home – with a neatly taken goal midway through the first half. Then, shortly after the restart, the Argentina captain sealed victory, turning home Enzo Fernandez’s shot from a few yards out.

It meant that this semifinal ended with the same scoreline as when these two teams met in the tournament’s opening game. What that belies, however, is the remarkable progress made by Jesse Marsch and Canada to even reach this point.

In the country’s first Copa America, only a couple of months after appointing the American manager, Canada has broken new ground. Two years out from a home World Cup, this team looked to have turned a corner towards brighter days.

For a team ranked No 48 in the world, this has been a brilliant run featuring breakout victories over Peru and Venezuela. Penny for the thoughts at US Soccer HQ. Marsch was overlooked in favor of Gregg Berhalter. But after America crashed and burned, he has led Canada to new heights.

This game always appeared a bridge too far. Scaloni has built a winning machine that has already won this tournament in 2021 and the 2022 World Cup. Now only Uruguay or Colombia can stop Argentina from securing a record 16th Copa America. Not quite the fool’s errand of those Jehovah’s witnesses. But no simple feat.

A few hours before kick-off, supporters were passing soccer balls around the parking lots outside Metlife Stadium. They spanned different generations and they wore different jerseys. But almost every fan carried the same name. Together they stitched together the tapestry of Messi’s career. Argentina, Barcelona, Inter Miami.

On Tuesday night, almost a year to the day since he arrived in America, almost two years to the day until the World Cup final comes to this stadium, Messi arrived on the cusp of yet more history.

In the lots and in the stands, there was the odd pocket of Canada red. Beyond that, though, Jersey was a sea of blue and white. Argentina fans drank and danced. One set off fireworks. Those Jehovah’s Witness stood and watched.

Messi (right) scored his first goal of the 2024 Copa America to make the score 2-0

Messi (right) scored his first goal of the 2024 Copa America to make the score 2-0

MetLife Stadium in New Jersey was full of adoring Argentina and Messi fans on Tuesday night

MetLife Stadium in New Jersey was full of adoring Argentina and Messi fans on Tuesday night

This tournament has brought a few reminders of Messi’s fragility. Since these two teams met on opening night, the 37-year-old had battled injury and then, against Ecuador, he missed from the penalty spot.

Canada went on its own wild ride over the past two and half weeks, too. That represents a reasonable chunk of Marsch’s reign and the manager insisted his team had grown aplenty on this unlikely run.

Canada stifled the defending champions for a while in Atlanta and Marsch’s side made a nerveless start here. No matter that this was one of the biggest night’s in the team’s history. No matter that Metlife was a tinderbox. Supporters turned up the noise – and bowed in unison – after Messi dragged an early shot wide.

Either side of that, though, it was Canada who created the brightest openings. New hero Jacob Shaffelburg had a couple of shooting chances; Marsch’s side looked dangerous every time they burst forward.

And then, just like that, the rug was pulled from beneath Canada. Rodrigo de Paul was given too much time near halfway and the midfielder clipped a ball into the path of Alvarez. The Manchester City forward found a pocket of space, rode Moise Bombito’s challenge and broke the deadlock – just as he did against Canada in the group stages.

It represented vindication for Scaloni, who picked Alvarez over the tournament’s top scorer, Lautaro Martinez. It was a brutal reminder, too, that the world’s best teams won’t always fire warning shots.

Marsch wasn’t happy – the Canada boss wanted a foul in the build-up to the goal. By half-time, however, he will have been relieved that the deficit was only one. For a while after the goal, Canada was clinging on. Angel Di Maria and Nicolas Tagliafico both came close before Messi worked some space inside the area, only to pull his shot wide.

He made no mistake a few minutes later, when Fernandez fired a shot towards goal from the edge of the box. Messi appeared to be in an offside position when he diverted the ball into the net. He wasn’t. And so the goal stood and Canada fell on its sword.

Marsch’s team kept pushing and Canada created a couple of glorious late chances for Tani Oluwaseyi. By then, though, many of the 80,000-strong crowd – which included Brazilian great Ronaldo – had started the party early.

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