Ezequiel Lavezzi was a surprise to replace the suspended Nico Gaitan in Argentina's line up against the United States. After Erik Lamela had come off the bench to score his second goal of the tournament in the 4-1 quarterfinal win against Venezuela, Lamela naturally seemed the favourite to step in. There have been suggestions that Lavezzi owes his place in the squad to the fact that Lionel Messi apparently likes having him around, as if the Argentina team were a social club.
Having to put up with such disrespect may well explain the ferocity of Lavezzi's celebrations when he headed Argentina into an early lead Tuesday against the Americans in Houston.
It was one of those goals where experience counts. On their big day, the U.S. were caught cold. They imagined that a short corner would end up with a cross to the far post and drew back, switching off and leaving space for Lavezzi to ghost in at the near post to latch on to a little chip from that man Messi.
Indeed, Messi had everything to do with the inclusion of Lavezzi, but not because he wanted a friend. The footballing logic was soon made clear. On Saturday, Venezuela fielded a three-man block in central midfield in an attempt to contain Messi, who confounded them by operating wide on the right. For this game, the U.S. lined up with a midfield quartet, with Graham Zusi waiting for Messi to go wide. So he moved inside and worked his magic from there, and with Messi more centralised, there was an obvious need for width to stretch the U.S. defence. Therefore, the inclusion of Lavezzi, a "classic" winger, to play wide on the left made perfect sense.
The value of this was apparent in the third goal, which came in the opening minutes of the second half and killed off the slightest possibility of an American comeback. From midfield, Messi found Lavezzi in that wide position, and his diagonal through-ball allowed Gonzalo Higuain to burst beyond John Brooks and put the result beyond all doubt. Lavezzi's injury in the second half -- he reportedly fractured his arm falling over a pitch-side advertisement hoarding -- will be a concern.
The final margin of victory was smaller than the semifinal between these two teams in the first World Cup, in 1930, when Argentina won 6-1. Only this time, there was little danger of the U.S. scoring one. Gyasi Zardes sent in a dangerous cross at the end of the first half, and there was an interesting break from Deandre Yedlin in the second. But the U.S. did not produce a single shot either on or off target, a statistic that pays tribute to one of the best collective displays from Argentina in years.
This team has become accustomed to flashes of brilliance from its attacking stars over the years. But what was so impressive on Tuesday night were two aspects of team play that have not always been present for a full 90-minute game; they were absent in Saturday's quarterfinal, when Venezuela had a spell of dominance and created plenty of chances.
One was controlled possession. Argentina made light of the fact that the U.S. had enjoyed the benefit of two extra days of rest. With Ever Banega keeping the ball moving, Argentina passed the ball with patience and concentration. They gave their hosts the runaround.
Most notably, Argentina never let the U.S. settle on the ball and play their way back into the game. Their collective pressing was outstanding. Hunting in little packs, they won the ball time and time again and either struck quickly or led the U.S. in a merry dance.
Excellent in many facets of the game was Augusto Fernandez, who wasn't selected for last year's Copa and was the only outfield player not to see any action at the 2014 World Cup. If Messi is going to switch position, then Fernandez, on the right of the midfield triangle, has to adjust his game. Luckily, he has the attributes to do this.
Originally a wide midfielder, Fernandez has moved inside to good effect with Atletico Madrid. On Saturday, with Messi wide, his job was to tuck in. Now he needed to supply more width on the right -- as well as burst into the box, offering an element of surprise -- and participate in the collective press. His quiet versatility was excellent, and he will be missed in the final if, as feared, he is ruled out by a muscular problem.
The golden rule of football is that the individual stars shine brightest when the collective balance of the team is correct, which made Tuesday night an appropriate time for Messi to become Argentina's all-time top scorer. He won the free kick from which he put Argentina 2-0 up just after the half hour. It is an indication of Argentina's dominance that the foul was committed by Chris Wondolowski, running back close to his own area in a bid to get behind the line of the ball and help his team out. Messi promptly made the U.S. pay.
About that free kick: It's true that some blame could be attached to Brad Guzan. The shot was curled into the side of the goal he should have been defending. He made the error of taking a step to his right, imagining that Messi would place his shot over the wall, which left him off balance and unable to get back in time.
Guzan was conned by Messi, but it is no disrespect to the U.S. goalkeeper to point out that better goalkeepers than he have been made to suffer in the same way from the little genius. And now, Messi stands just one game away from finally winning a senior title with his country.