Lionel Messi helped set up five goals as Argentina trounced Paraguay 6-1 in the Copa America semifinals on Tuesday, setting up a final against host Chile.
Messi assisted in first-half goals by Marcos Rojo and Javier Pastore and one of Angel Di Maria’s second-half goals. The Barcelona star also helped set up the final two goals by Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.
Messi demonstrated his brilliant play-making abilities when he beat three defenders — poking the ball through the legs of one of them — in a remarkable run that culminated in Argentina’s fourth goal by Di Maria.
Striker Lucas Barrios scored the lone goal for Paraguay, which was trying to reach its second straight Copa America final after losing to Uruguay in the 2011 tournament.
In Saturday’s final, Argentina will attempt to end a 22-year title drought to give Messi his first triumph with the national team, while Chile, boosted by the home crowd and its best generation of players in years, will be going for its first South American championship.
Argentina hasn’t won a significant trophy since the 1993 Copa America, when Messi was 6 years old. The Argentines were eliminated by eventual champion Uruguay in the Copa America quarterfinals at home in 2011, and lost consecutive finals to rival Brazil in 2004 and 2007.
But Argentina has won the previous four Copa Americas played in Chile — the last in 1991. It’s also never lost to Chile in the tournament.
Argentina outplayed Paraguay during most of the match in Concepcion, controlling possession and creating scoring chances from the beginning. The team only struggled for a few minutes before halftime, but came back to crush its rivals in the second half.
Paraguay lost two key players because of injury in the first half — playmaker Derlis Gonzalez in the 26th minute and veteran striker Roque Santa Cruz in the 30th. Gonzalez was crucial in the quarterfinals against Brazil, scoring the equalizer and converting the decisive penalty in the shootout.
Rojo opened the scoring in the 15th after Messi’s free kick into the penalty area. Paraguayan defenders failed to clear the ball and Rojo easily found the net from the six-meter (yard) line.
Messi than set up Pastore’s goal in the 27th by feeding him the ball in perfect position for a low shot from the top of the area.
Paraguay pulled one closer in the 43rd when striker Lucas Barrios fired a powerful left-footed shot from just outside the area after Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi erred by trying to move the ball forward with a long pass.
Di Maria added to Argentina’s lead just two minutes into the second half after entering the area free of any defenders and scored again five minutes later after Messi’s spectacular run past three Paraguayan defenders. Pastore received the pass from Messi, but his shot was saved by Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar, and Di Maria found the open net off the rebound.
Messi also started the play that led to the fifth goal, an 80th-minute header by Aguero after a left-side cross by Di Maria. In the sixth goal, Messi poked the ball forward to set up Higuain’s close-range shot in the 83rd.
Messi nearly scored himself with a curling free kick shot in the 39th that barely missed and also came close in the 68th with a close-range shot that was saved by Villar.
Paraguay has never beaten Argentine in 24 Copa America matches.