Lionel Messi scored a free kick and provided two assists as Argentina beat Ecuador 3-0 on Saturday in preparation for the Copa America semifinals against Colombia.
Messi missed a golden chance in the first half but set up Rodrigo De Paul five minutes before break and did the same for Lautaro Martinez five minutes from time to give Argentina a deserved win.
The Barcelona player then scored his second free kick of the tournament in added time to round out a result that was more convincing than the performance.
It was his 76th goal for Argentina, setting one of Pele’s South American records.
“I’ve always said that individual prizes are secondary, we’re here for something else,” said Messi. “We have a goal and that is what we focus on.”
“It was a tough game, we know how difficult an opponent can be. The important thing is that we have taken another step forward.”
Argentina were unbeaten in 17 games and should have cleared the result sooner than they did.
Martinez and German Pezzella both got close in the first 20 minutes, and Hernan Galindez made a great one-two save against Nicolas Gonzalez with the score 1-0.
More surprisingly, Messi missed the game’s best chance when he was through the goalkeeper but saw his shot come back from the post.
However, the striker made up for it five minutes before half-time when the Ecuadorian goalkeeper was stranded outside the box after a tackle and fed De Paul, who slipped the ball into the net for his first international goal in 25 games.
Messi then prepared Martinez for a clinical finish five minutes from time before taking a free kick home in added time after Piero Hincapie knocked Angel Di Maria down and received a red card.
Underdogs Ecuador have gone into the game without a win in their last six games but have had chances to score against a side aiming for their first Copa America triumph since 1993.
Above all, Enner Valencia will be mad at himself for shooting two headers from close range in the first 45 minutes.
The result means Argentina will face Colombia, which Uruguay beat on penalties earlier in the day, in the Copa America’s second semi-final on Tuesday. Brazil will face Peru 24 hours earlier in the first semi-final.