Emiliano Martinez saves Argentina after Lionel Messi misses penalty in Copa América shootout

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JULY 4: Emiliano Martinez of Argentina celebrates saving the first penalty in the penalty shootout during the quarter-final of the 2024 CONMEBOL Copa America between Argentina and Ecuador at NRG Stadium on July 4, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

For most of the 90 minutes on Thursday night, Argentina were comfortable. Through 360 minutes of this 2024 Copa América, the reigning champions had not conceded a goal of any kind.

However, just after 10pm they found themselves on the brink of elimination in Houston, stunned by Ecuador and trailing in a penalty shootout after Lionel Messi missed, until goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez made the save.

Argentina led 1-0 for most of the thrilling match but were never dominant. And in second-half injury time, Ecuador’s Kevin Rodríguez equalized, sending nearly 70,000 fans in NRG Stadium into shock and sending the match straight to penalties.

During the penalty shootout, after a long, lonely walk from midfield to the spot, Messi fired the spot kick straight through the middle of the goal, off the crossbar and into the roof of the net.

But Martínez, the hero of the 2022 World Cup final and arguably the best penalty stopper in the world, made a convincing save on Ecuador’s first attempt.

After being paraded away, he pointed back to Messi in midfield. Messi, arm in arm with teammate Cristian Romero, pumped his first to Martínez, as if to say “thank you” in relief.

“I owed it to Leo Messi, I owed it to him,” Martinez said after the game. “He saved us in the World Cup, he won it, he was the best of all in the World Cup, and when things don’t go his way — he was coming off a bad adductor injury, and I felt like I had to help him when he missed the penalty.”

After Julián Álvarez scored in the shoot-out to put Argentina ahead, Martínez made another remarkable save, diving to his right and parrying the ball with a hard left hand.

Martínez, who is both loved and despised for his showmanship, play and antics, jumped off the grass, turned to the fans behind the goal and danced.

At that point it seemed as if Ecuador no longer had a chance. The Albiceleste‘s mojo was suddenly back. Alexis MacAllister put them ahead 2-0.

In fact, their confidence never wavered. Even immediately after Messi’s miss, his friend and teammate Rodrigo De Paul appeared to approach him and reassure him: “We’re going to win it. We’re going to win it.”

Ecuador would convert their next two penalties, but Gonzalo Montiel, who scored the decisive goal in Qatar 19 months ago, kept his composure to give Argentina a commanding 3-1 lead. And Nicolás Otamendi buried his penalty to secure Argentina a place in the semi-finals, where they will face the winner of Friday’s Canada-Venezuela match.

On Thursday night, they looked destined for that semi-final for a few minutes. But they never really looked good. Martínez kept their run of multiple games without conceding intact with a great save early in the first half.

Argentina finally scored with their first ever shot on target. Mac Allister received a corner from Messi at the near post and tapped it to the far post, where Lisandro Martínez waited cleverly to head it in.

The Argentine attack, however, was unusually quiet for most of the evening. Messi, who had overcome an injury sustained against Chile nine days earlier, was not his usual self.

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Ecuador were awarded a penalty, but Enner Valencia rolled the ball off the post after sending Emi Martínez the wrong way.

However, the underdogs battled it out against the reigning champions and finally scored the deserved equaliser in injury time.

A few minutes later, they nearly floored Argentina with a second goal, Jordy Caicedo’s free but missed header going wide.

The quarter-final was therefore played without extra time and ended in a penalty shoot-out, as are all Copa América knockout round matches prior to the final if the scores are tied.

But in the penalty shootout, Argentina had one massive, unyielding 6-foot-5 advantage: the man they call “Dibu,” the late-blooming goalkeeper who helped Messi conquer the world on December 18, 2022, and who performed similar heroics on Thursday night.

His play may not have been successful, but his size and instincts devastated Ecuador and saved Argentina from destruction.

After Otamendi secured the win, Messi pumped his right fist in the air once more. And soon the Argentines were singing and dancing again.

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