Argentina clinched first place in Group D at the 2016 Copa America with its 3-0 victory over Bolivia in Seattle on Tuesday.
It didn't even need Lionel Messi to do the damage, as he entered the game at the start of the second half when it was already 3-0 in Argentina's favor. Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Victor Cuesta scored the three goals, but the final deficit didn't do the blowout justice. According to ESPN FC, Argentina tallied a borderline-ridiculous 86 percent of the possession in the straightforward victory.
Bolivia was already eliminated from advancement before the contest started, while Chile finished in second place in the group and will also move to the tournament's bracket portion alongside Argentina.
Messi didn't start Tuesday's contest largely because Argentina was tied with Chile with six points and comfortably ahead in goal differential (6-2) coming into the final group-stage game. Even without the superstar on the field, Argentina wasted little time getting on the scoreboard.
Bolivia's Edward Zenteno picked up a yellow card outside the penalty box, and Lamela's free kick found the back of the net after a deflection at the 13th minute, via Univision Deportes:
Argentina was far from done following the initial breakthrough. Lavezzi scored off a rebound right in front of the net in the 15th minute, via Univision Deportes:
The wide talent disparity between the two sides was glaringly evident, and Caitlin Murray of Fox Soccer said Argentina was "just having fun out there now" after Sergio Aguero passed to himself without much challenge to get past the Bolivia defense.
Fox Soccer noted the crowd was already looking toward the bench in the early stages of the easy win:
With Messi still on the sidelines, Argentina continued to dominate play and earned a third goal when Cuesta redirected Lavezzi's cross into the net at the 32nd minute. Matt Pentz of the Seattle Times said, "This is like the soccer version of a Globetrotters-Washington Generals game. Argentina with 82 percent of possession through half an hour."
Argentina took that 3-0 lead into halftime, and the only question was whether Messi would take the field. That question was quickly answered when he started the second half, much to the crowd's delight, as Major League Soccer illustrated:
With Messi leading the way, Argentina continued to press forward against the Bolivia defense. Although it didn't score in the first 20 minutes of the half, it won a handful of corner and free kicks, one of which Messi just narrowly missed as he targeted the upper 90 of the goal, via Univision Deportes:
Tim Booth of the Associated Press called it the "upset of the night." Argentina didn't score early in the second half with Messi on the pitch. Bolivia's defensive strategy was largely responsible for the lack of goals in the second half, and Pentz said it had nine players "camped in its own half in a defensive shell."
Murray reacted to Bolivia's decision to sit back despite the 3-0 deficit:
While Argentina didn't score in the second half, the crowd did get to see Messi nutmeg the goalkeeper. It was called back for offsides, but it didn't take away from the beauty of it, via Univision Deportes:
That play summarized Bolivia's evening in Seattle, as it never had a chance against the overwhelming Argentina side.
Argentina will play Venezuela in the quarterfinals after finishing in first place in Group D. Venezuela earned seven points and second place in Group C during its first three games of the Copa America thanks to strong defense and timely goals.
It beat Jamaica and Uruguay 1-0 and tied Mexico 1-1 behind that defense. However, it didn't show much firepower with a mere one goal in each of the three contests. If Argentina can get on the board early in Saturday's quarterfinals match, it can put pressure on the Venezuela offense that hasn't demonstrated the ability to score multiple goals yet in this tournament.
Argentina proved how easily it can do just that during Tuesday's victory.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino discussed his team’s control of the game and possession after the win, per Steven Goff of the Washington Post: “The ball circulated faster. We were patient, but with this patience, we were not slow. The ball was moving all over the place, and we were playing with 11 players. I can see this team is making progress.”
Martino also talked about his decision to play Messi in the second half, even though advancement and the victory were already well in hand, per Goff: “People pay all over the world to see him. He has to deal with that. Sometimes he has to play; sometimes he is on the bench. He has that obligation to fulfill for the fans who are paying to be there for him. He lives with that.”
After commenting on Tuesday’s game, Martino looked ahead to the knockout rounds, per Goff: “It doesn’t matter the teams we are facing. We know we have to go forward or go home.”
If Argentina plays like it did Tuesday, it will continue to go forward.