Martinez saves Messi, Argentina in Copa América quarterfinal shootout

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JULY 04: Emiliano Martinez of Argentina celebrates stoping the first penalty in the penalty shoot out during the CONMEBOL Copa America 2024 quarter-final match between Argentina and Ecuador at NRG Stadium on July 04, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

For most of 90 minutes Thursday night, Argentina was comfortable. For 360-plus minutes at this 2024 Copa América, the reigning champions of everything had not conceded a single goal.

A little after 10 p.m. in Houston, though, they were on the brink of elimination, stunned by Ecuador and down in a penalty shootout after Lionel Messi missed — until goalkeeper Emi Martínez saved the day.

Argentina was ahead for most of a tense match, but never dominant. And in second-half stoppage time, Ecuador equalized — sending 70,000 fans at NRG Stadium into a state of shock, and sending the game straight to penalties.

In the shootout, Messi, after a long, lonely walk from midfield to the spot, chipped his penalty straight down the middle of the goal, off the crossbar, and onto the roof of the net.

But Martínez, the hero of the 2022 World Cup final and perhaps the best penalty stopper in the world, responded with an emphatic save on Ecuador’s first attempt.

Messi, arm in arm with teammate Cristian Romero, pumped his first toward Martinez, as if to say a relieved “thank you.”

After Julián Álvarez scored to get Argentina off the mark in the shootout, Martinez produced another remarkable save, diving to his right, and parrying the ball with a massive left hand.

Martínez, who is both beloved and despised for his showmanship, gamesmanship and antics, leapt up off the grass, turned to fans behind the goal, and danced.

In that moment, it was as if Ecuador no longer stood a chance. La Albiceleste’s mojo had suddenly returned. Alexis Mac Allister put them ahead 2-0.

Ecuador would convert its next two penalties, but Gonzalo Montiel, who scored the clincher in Qatar 19 months ago, stayed calm to give Argentina a commanding 3-1 lead. And Nicolás Otamendi buried his penalty to book Argentina’s place in the semifinals, where they’ll face either Canada or Venezuela.

For all but a few minutes Thursday night, they looked destined for that semifinal. But they never looked especially good. Martínez kept their multi-game scoreless streak intact early in the first half with a sprawling save.

Argentina eventually scored with its very first shot on target. Mac Allister met a Messi corner at the near post, and flicked it toward the far post, where Lisandro Martínez was cleverly waiting to nod it home.

The Argentine attack, though, was atypically quiet for most of the night. Messi, having overcome an injury suffered nine days earlier against Chile, wasn’t his usual self.

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Ecuador earned a penalty — but Enner Valencia rolled it off the post after sending Emi Martínez the wrong way.

The underdogs, though, bellied up to the defending champs, and finally got their deserved equalizer in stoppage time.

A couple minutes later, they almost floored Argentina with a second goal. Jordy Caicedo’s free-but-miscued header flashed wide.

So the quarterfinal went to penalties — as do all Copa América knockout-round games prior to the final if tied.

But in the shootout, Argentina had one gargantuan, unflinching, 6-foot-5 advantage: the man they call Dibu, the late-blooming goalkeeper who allowed Messi to conquer the world on Dec. 18, 2022, and who reproduced similar heroics Thursday night.

His gamesmanship might not have worked, but his size and instincts devastated Ecuador, and rescued Argentina from the brink.

After Otamendi sealed the victory, Messi pumped his right fist once more. And before long, the Argentines were singing and dancing again.

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