The Atletico Madrid star scored either side of half time to fire a dominant Albiceleste to victory, in turn assuring its place in the Copa America knock-out stages
The Atletico Madrid forward turned in a rebound on the stroke of halftime, before adding to his tally in the second period as the hosts started to run rampant. Angel Di Maria put the result beyond doubt, while the Argentines were aided by two assists by Lionel Messi - looking infinitely more comfortable directing the side from a No. 10 position.
"It was an important victory," said Argentina defender Pablo Zabaleta, "For the team, to get more confidence, to show that we have talent and that this team still has a lot of room to improve. It was important to secure our spot in the quarterfinals and show a good collective game."
Playing for its Copa America lives in front of a capacity crowd in Cordoba, it was no surprise to see Argentina go straight for the throat against Ricardo la Volpe's men. Just seconds in Gonzalo Higuain had a half-chance on the edge of the area, but could not convert.
That was to set the tone for a frustrating first 45 minutes, as the home team streamed forward in numbers without finding the target; 'Pipita' and Sergio Aguero the worst culprits for squandering chances in front of goal. The Real Madrid man was played through perfectly by teammate Fernando Gago one-on-one with Leonel Moreira, but could only find the goalkeeper's legs after 20 minutes. Seconds later a rejuvenated Lionel Messi missed by inches from a free-kick, before 'El Kun' whistled a long-shot just wide.
Albiceleste dominance was almost total, and Costa Rica retracted into its own half; Joel Campbell the only man at times advanced as far as the center-circle. Higuain however could not find the net for love nor money, his best chance blazed over the bar after a delightful through-ball from Messi, and after Aguero missed a couple of his own a draw at halftime looked inevitable.
In the last play before the break, however, Argentina finally found the net. Fernando Gago hit hard from distance, and when Moreira let the ball slip from his grasp Aguero was on hand to turn it in. The relief of the hosts as they found themselves in the lead for the first time in the tournament was palpable, matched by an explosion of noise from the stands after tension had been slowly building.
"It was very important to score the goal in the closing moments of the first half," said defender Javier Zanetti. "This calmed us down a lot."
Argentina once more started on the front-foot after the break, and Costa Rica started to show its physical side. Messi for one felt the full force of the Central Americans, staying down after being clattered by Oscar Duarte; the defender deservedly receiving a yellow card. Sergio Batista's side would not let the hits get to them, however, and just minutes in doubled the advantage.
Aguero hit home once again after being fed through perfectly by 'La Pulga', and in doing so became the top scorer of the tournament so far with all three Albiceleste strikes. Argentina was now playing with verve and confidence, and the nerves of the first half appeared long gone. Higuain thought that he had finally found his scoring boots with a close-range volley, but the offside flag was already up to the disappointment of the No. 9.
The chances kept flowing, and it was Angel Di Maria who put the game beyond doubt. The lanky wide-man had been quiet in the first half, but with 63 minutes he was the latest recipient of Messi's inch-perfect passing and smashed home past Moreira for the third.
The rest of the encounter was a stroll for Argentina, and the biggest ovation of the night was reserved for local boy made-good Javier Pastore when he entered with 10 minutes left on the clock for Gonzalo Higuain. Di Maria was also withdrawn, Lucas Biglia entering in the middle to leave Messi further up the field.
"It was beautiful to play in Cordoba with the national team shirt, and also because of the way people treated me here. The truth is that I leave very happy," Pastore said.
'El Flaco' could not add a fourth to the tally though, and a 3-0 victory in Cordoba secures Argentina's passage into the last eight as second-place in Group A. Costa Rica meanwhile will have to wait until the culmination of the other two groups to discover if their three points are enough to put them through as a best third-placed nation.
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