Argentina is two wins away from defending its Copa América title and making history.

The reigning South American and World Cup champions beat Ecuador in a penalty shootout in Thursday’s 2024 Copa América quarterfinal in Houston, sending Lionel Messi & Co. to next week’s semi against the winner of Friday’s contest between Canada and Venezuela following a 1-1 tie.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez was the hero for La Albiceleste, making two saves in the tiebreaker after Messi missed Argentina’s first spot kick.

Lisandro Martínez opened the scoring for Argentina 10 minutes before halftime in front of a packed Independence Day crowd of 70,000 fans at NRG Stadium. Ecuador missed a second half penalty to preserve Argentina’s lead, but Kevin Rodríguez scored a dramatic equalizer for La Vinotinto in second half stoppage time to send the contest to the tiebreaker. Argentina advanced when Nicolás Otamendi converted the final attempt from 12 yards.

Lionel Scaloni’s side is aiming to become one of the few national teams ever to win three major tournaments in a row, and the first since Spain claimed the 2010 World Cup between consecutive European crowns.

Here are a few quick thoughts on Thursday’s match.

Play of the game

As a diminutive central defender, Martinez isn’t known for his scoring; he’s managed just one Premier League goal in two seasons with Manchester United. His tally on Thursday was his first in 21 games for his country. It was worth the wait, as Martinez was perfectly positioned at the back post to nod home a deflected  corner kick:

Turning point

Although the score was only 1-0, Argentina seemed to be in control the entire match — especially after Ecuador squandered the penalty it was awarded for a Rodrigo de Paul handball. Rodríguez’s equalizer was well deserved, though, having come after some frantic but sustained pressure over the last desperate stretch of regular time. With no extra 30 minutes to play (Copa knockout games go directly to penalties until the finale), the outcome became a coin flip. Argentina’s experience and ruthlessness prevailed in the end, probably to nobody’s surprise. But Rodríguez’s late heroics made it closer than almost anyone expected.

Key stat

The shot count says plenty about the resistance Ecuador put up, with the underdogs out-chancing Argentina 9-8.

What’s next for Ecuador?

Devastated as they were to fall just short of dethroning the champs, Ecuador’s players and supporters can hold their heads up high after reaching the last eight for the third time in four Copa América. They earned a ton of respect for taking trophy favorites Argentina to the brink of a stunning exit on Thursday, as Emiliano Martínez’s classy support for opposing goalkeeper Alexander Domínguez afterward proved.

What’s next for Argentina?

A high-stakes semifinal in East Rutherford, New Jersey. MetLife Stadium is not a happy place for Messi; it’s where he missed a penalty shootout attempt in the 2016 Copa Americas Centenario final as Chile upset Argentina for the second straight year. Fortunately for La Albliceleste, the GOAT got some of those demons exercised in Argentina’s second group game, a 1-0 revenge victory over the Chileans.

Venezuela won Group B ahead of Ecuador and Mexico has been superb in South America’s qualifying completion for the 2026 World Cup. La Vinotinto will be expected to beat the Canadians, who surprisingly survived a killer quartet that included Argentina, Chile and Peru. The Reds dropped the tournament opener 2-0 to Argentina on June 20.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports who has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at FIFA World Cups on five continents. Follow him at @ByDougMcIntyre.

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