Scaloni defends Messi again as Argentina set up Copa America clash with Brazil

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Argentina's Lionel Messi and Venezuela's Junior Moreno vie for the ball during their Copa America football tournament quarter-final match at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro
Argentina's Lionel Messi and Venezuela's Junior Moreno vie for the ball during their Copa America football tournament quarter-final match at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro

vArgentina coach Lionel Scaloni was forced to defend Lionel Messi despite Argentina’s 2-0 Copa America quarter-final victory over Venezuela, writes Jacob Bentley-York in Rio.

Despite a much improved team performance, Messi produced an underwhelming individual display as fellow forwards Lauturo Martinez and Sergio Aguero starred.

Messi has scored just once, from the penalty spot against Paraguay, in four games at the tournament.

And criticism of the 32-year old Barcelona star’s performance has reached new levels.

Messi is no stranger to feeling the heat on international duty - but this week’s headlines even included questioning why he didn’t sing the national anthem.

"Having him on the pitch gives us a lot of support, if you could see what he gives us in the dressing room you'd think differently,” said Scaloni.

“I assure you it's great to have him here. Messi is Messi. He's the best, above everyone else."

Pressure will only increase though as Argentina will take on hosts Brazil in a glamour semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, their first matchup in the competition since 2007.

Playing their first game at the Maracana since losing the 2014 World Cup final, Argentina made a quick start as they looked to dispel early tournament criticism.

Ahead inside the first ten minutes, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero saw his low drive from a corner flicked in beautifully by the in-form Lautaro Martinez, who scored his second in two games.

Although their opponents made a few forays through the lively Darwin Machis, it was mainly one way traffic.

Argentina could have got a second goal early after after the break when Martinez latched onto a through ball only to see his shot clip the bar.

Having laboured for the vast majority of the game, Venezuela then took the initiative with a spell of sustained pressure and were only denied by Franco Armani, who saved low from a fierce Ronald Hernandez volley.

However, with the game stretched, it was Argentina who found the knockout blow in the 74th minute.

Recovering the ball high up the pitch, Aguero’s low drive was fumbled by Venezuelan goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez allowing Giovani Lo Celso to tap home into an empty net to seal the victory.

Joining Brazil and Argentina in the last four while be Chile, who edged past Colombia in a tense penalty shoot-out.

Manchester United forward Alexis Sanchez scored the decisive penalty and they’ll face either Uruguay or Peru, who play in Salvador on Sunday.