Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Lionel Messi says 2019 Copa America 'begins now' as Argentina set up date with Venezuela

Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero on target against Qatar as Argentina secure second spot in Group B to secure quarter-final berth

Lionel Messi says Argentina's stuttering 2019 Copa America campaign kicks into gear "now" after a 2-0 win over Qatar set up a quarter-final meeting against Venezuela on Friday.

Argentina averted the ignominy of exiting at the group stage thanks to Messi's strike partners Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero as Argentina leapfrogged Paraguay to secure the second automatic qualifying place behind Group B winners Colombia.

"We played a good game and we won, and that was what mattered," Messi said. "We needed a game like this to gain some confidence and calm."

"As we play more games the team grows each one and that game was good for that.

"The important thing was to win to keep going in the Copa, to get through the group stage.

"This will be an important boost for what's to come ... another Copa begins now.

"This victory must give us strength and make us grow as a team."

Victory means Messi can enjoy his birthday on Monday with the Barcelona forward turning 32 and a step closer to winning an elusive international tournament with his country.

As was the case in their first two games, Argentina's performance against Qatar was far from perfect.

The score did not reflect the number of chances – Argentina had 17 shots on goal to Qatar’s four - but neither did it flatter the Qataris, who matched Argentina for most of the first half before running out of steam.

The Asian champions contributed to their own downfall when Bassam Hicham played a ludicrous ball across his own area and straight to a grateful Martinez to open the scoring on four minutes.

Aguero, recalled after being dropped for the 1-1 draw with Paraguay, had a mixed game alongside Messi and Martinez, although getting his name on the scoresheet will have done the Manchester City striker's confidence no harm at all.

His goal eight minutes from time was classic Aguero, bursting past two Qatari defenders before shooting low into the far corner.

"Luckily I was picked to start and luckily at times the three of us worked well together and we won," Aguero said.

Argentina will now play Venezuela at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Friday for a place in the semi-finals.

Venezuela finished second in Group A behind leaders Brazil and have recent form over Messi and Co having beaten the Albiceleste 3-1 in a friendly in Madrid in March.

"They're quite tough opponents who counter-attack really well and we'll try to be wise to that," Aguero said.

Manager Lionel Scaloni was scathing about the state of the Arena de Gremio surface - "You can't play on this pitch" - but was content that his players had shown some improvement and secured a place in the knockout round.

"Of course there are things we can improve on but we're satisfied," he said.

"We always tried to play football and pressure them high up the pitch. I think the second half was very good.

"The message has to be that as long as we’re in the Copa America we need to keep pushing forward."

Colombia enjoyed a 1-0 win over Paraguay despite fielding a second-string side to make it a clean sweep of victories in their Copa America group stage campaign, leaving Paraguay's hopes of staying in the tournament hanging by a thread.

Midfielder Gustavo Cuellar put Colombia ahead just after the half-hour mark, sliding the ball through the legs of Paraguay goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez, while Luis Diaz struck in the second half but the goal was ruled out by VAR.

Paraguay must wait until Group C concludes to determine whether their two points is enough to see them progress as one of the best third-placed teams.

Updated: June 24, 2019 08:40 AM

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