Argentina's goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez celebrates after winning the quarter-finals against Ecuador. Image Credit: AFP

Houston: Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was the hero, saving two penalties and Lionel Messi’s blushes as holders Argentina defeated Ecuador in a penalty shoot-out to book their place in the Copa America semi-finals on Thursday.

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A Lisandro Martinez header had put world champions Argentina 1-0 up ten minutes before half-time but Kevin Rodriguez headed in a stoppage-time leveller for Ecuador, who had risen to the occasion in front of 69,456 fans at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Messi missed the opening penalty, chipping against the bar, but thanks to heroics from Martinez, Argentina recovered to win the shoot-out 4-2 and progress into the semi-finals where they will face the winner of Friday’s match between Venezuela and Canada.

Messi’s ‘panenka’ miss brought back memories of his miss in the shoot-out loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa final, but luckily for him goalkeeper Martinez was in the mood to repeat his own past.

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Lionel Messi wears a dejected look during the clash against Ecuador. The Argentine forward missed the penalty but still his team won. Image Credit: AFP

Pulling off superb diving saves

He pulled off superb diving saves to deny Angel Mena and Alan Minda and get his team in front before Nicolas Otamendi slotted home the decisive fourth kick.

Martinez had saved three spot-kicks in a 3-2 penalty shoot-out victory for Argentina over Colombia in the semi-final of the 2021 Copa America and famously saved two in the World Cup final win against France in Qatar.

Ecuador were left crestfallen after a match in which they had created enough opportunities to have won the game.

Felix Sanchez’s team made a bright start, dominating the ball in midfield and stretching the Argentine defence at times.

Moises Caicedo had an early opportunity, latching on to a header from Enner Valencia, but his shot was tame and easily dealt with by Argentine keeper Martinez.

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Argentina's Lisandro Martinez celebrates after scoring his team's first goal. Image Credit: AFP

Then Moises Caicedo threaded a clever pass through to the impressive Jeremy Sarmiento but Martinez was out quick to save with an outstretched foot and Kendry Paez blasted the loose ball over the bar.

Getting a foothond in the game

Argentina gradually got a foothold in the game but it was not until the 28th minute that they had their first opening when Enzo Fernandez headed wide a Nahuel Molina cross from the right.

Seven minutes later, they had the lead however, Messi driving in a corner, which Alexis Mac Allister met at the near post with a flick-on and Lisandro Martinez arrived with a powerful header that Ecuador keeper Alexander Dominguez was unable to keep out.

Fernandez soon had a chance to double the lead but fired a left-foot shot wide at the back post and Argentina went in at the break with a single goal lead.

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Argentina players celebrate after booking a place in the Copa American semi-finals. Image Credit: AFP

Getting a lifeline

Ecuador were given a lifeline in the 62nd minute when Rodrigo De Paul was ruled to have handled inside the box but Valencia’s penalty struck the outside of the post.

But in stoppage time, Ecuador stunned the 15-time Copa champions when Kevin Rodriguez glanced in a header from a John Yeboah cross.

There was a VAR review, looking at whether Jordy Caicedo had interfered in an offside position at the back post but the goal stood.

Moments later Jordy Caicedo had a great chance to win the game but he glanced a left-wing cross wide from a great, central position.

That meant the drama of a penalty shoot-out and the chance to upset the defending champions slipt away.