Martinez is a penalty-saving monster.

Emi Martinez’s penalty heroics saved Messi’s panenka blushes in wild Copa America scenes

The problem with GOAT debates around Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is that they tend to ignore the other 21 players on the pitch at any given time. Football is a collective sport. Rarely, if ever, does it come down to one man.

But tell that to Aston Villa’s chief sh*thouse Emiliano Martinez, who thrives on being the main man for Argentina. The man who has arguably done more than anyone, besides Messi himself of course, to bury Cristiano Ronaldo’s name in the era-defining argument.

“I was dead on the floor,” Martinez said, back at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, following their madcap quarter-final penalty shootout victory over Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands.

“Someone hugged me and said, ‘I can’t believe you’ve done it again – you’ve saved us again’. When I look up, it was Leo. That picture I will always have in my heart.”

He’s since done it again, in a World Cup final no less. And now, once again, to book the Albiceleste’s place in the Copa America semi-finals.

Martinez looked to have kept his flawless 2024 Copa America record intact as the clock ticked down into injury time. He’d kept three successive clean sheets in the group stage and appeared to be heading to another as Argentina held onto a narrow 1-0 lead against an obdurate Ecuador side.

It hadn’t been Argentina’s most convincing performance. Enner Valencia had missed a penalty, hitting the woodwork for Ecuador, who had outshot the reigning champions on the night. Ipswich promotion hero Jeremy Sarmiento caused havoc off the bench, completing twice as many dribbles as a laboured-looking Argentina managed in total.

Argentina’s inspirational captain said that in the week he was: “trying to get rid of the discomfort I had, the pain, training little by little, feeling a little scared, letting go little by little.

“In the last training sessions I felt better and I thought I could be there. I felt fine, I had no discomfort, nothing. There is always a bit of psychological fear of having an injury or discomfort, but at a muscular level I had nothing. (Scaloni) asked me if I was ready to play and I said yes.”

Whether or not he was carrying an injury, it wasn’t a vintage performance. He wasn’t his usual lively self in self in the final third, both struggling for opportunities himself and failing to create for others, although it was his corner that was headed on for Lisandro Martinez’s opener.

Ecuador eventually found a well-deserved equaliser in injury time, a John Yeboah cross floating all the way through and into the back of Martinez’s net. No extra time, straight to penalties. Messi once again the first man to step up.

Messi hadn’t missed a penalty since his ultimately inconsequential spot-kick against Poland was saved by Wojciech Szczesny in the 2022 World Cup group stage.

He’d scored seven in a row in shootouts, dating back to the 2016 Copa America final defeat to Chile, including three for Argentina en route to the last Copa America and World Cup.

During Messi’s prime years, penalties had been the one area of his game that he wasn’t superhuman at. But in his thirties, he changed his technique and transformed into an elite dead-eyed finisher from 12 yards.

At least until this wildly misjudged panenka, which almost required a slapstick sound effect as it bounced off the crossbar and onto the top of the net.

“I was very angry, I was convinced that I would take it like that,” explained Messi on the failed panenka attempt.

“I had spoken with Dibu (Martinez), with (Geronimo) Rulli, I had taken a couple of penalties. I hadn’t practised, but I spoke with them. I had been taking several cross-shots, in fact the goalkeeper dived for a cross-shot, I tried to touch it and it went high.”

Advantage Ecuador.

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Behind in a penalty shootout? These are the kind of scenarios that Martinez dreams of. He’d already seen one Ecuador penalty fail to go in, albeit having had little to do with it.

Martinez responded instantly, denying Angel Mena. After Julian Alvarez scored to put Argentina on the board, the ‘keeper stepped up once again, denying Alan Minda. Within the blink of an eye, Argentina were ahead and in the driving seat – yet again thanks to the Aston Villa man.

Dance moves customary.

He’s now faced 24 penalties as an Argentina player. Only twelve have been scored. He’s saved nine, two have been sent off target and one has hit the woodwork. It’s an extraordinary record.

Four major tournament penalty shootouts on the international stage. Four victories. Saves in each and every one of them. Eight of his nine spot-kick saves have come in shootout scenarios.

So often football comes down to fine margins. Messi knows that all too well.

The Argentina icon reached three major tournament finals during his prime – 2014, 2015, 2016. All went to extra time. The latter two went to penalties. All three lost.

Now Messi is one match away from reaching a third successive Argentina final, two in the Copa America and one in the World Cup, for the second time in his career. This time he might well win all three.

The difference between grief and glory? Just a few small moments. Messi finds himself blessed with a goalkeeper that lives for those moments.