Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved a remarkable three of the five penalties he faced in the shootout versus Colombia to send Argentina to the Copa America final, where they will face Brazil
Argentina have a hero at the back to add to their one up front.
Emiliano Martinez is the man who earned Lionel Messi’s coveted praise after stepping up when his nation, starved of success for so long, needed him most in the Copa America semi-final versus Colombia.
The Aston Villa goalkeeper saved a remarkable three of the five penalties he faced in the shootout to send Argentina to the final, where they will face Brazil.
It was a moment of vindication for Martinez, who made just 15 appearances in the Premier League during eight years on Arsenal’s books, but always believed he could be his country’s first-choice shot-stopper.
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Refusing to settle as back-up after shining in Bernd Leno’s absence last year, Martinez pushed for a move away from the Emirates and arrived at Villa Park for £17million.
Fast forward to the present day and that looks a bargain sum for a player who shone for Dean Smith’s side and will contest the greatest honour in South America in the early hours of Sunday morning.
After denying Davinson Sanchez, Yerry Mina and Edwin Cardona from 12 yards, Martinez was lauded by the player many believe to be the greatest ever.
“[A] Penalty shootout is total luck, but we knew Emiliano will stop at least two,” said Messi. “He deserves it, he is a monster of a ‘keeper.”
The six-time Ballon d’Or winner added: “At times it became difficult, but we have Emiliano Martinez who is a phenomenon.
“We trusted him. We achieved the goal of being able to play every game and now we’re going through the final.”
Messi’s desperation to end Argentina’s 28-year wait for a major honour cannot be overstated.
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The Barcelona legend has fallen short in each of his three previous Copa America finals but Martinez’s heroics mean he has another shot at redemption.
While the Villa star was embraced for minutes on end after his heroics, it was Argentina captain Messi who continued to hug him long after the celebrations died down.
It was a moment of release after a fiery match which ended with drama under football’s most-tense circumstances.
The moment in question came as Mina stepped up to take Colombia’s third penalty, having converted in the shootout against Uruguay in the quarter-final.
The Everton centre-back made a point of dancing after netting his penalty against Uruguay, and Martinez ruthlessly teased him as he stepped up to the spot.
“You’re laughing, but you’re nervous,” said the 28-year-old. “I know you already, fool. I know you. Look out, I’m gonna eat you alive. I’m gonna eat you alive.”
Sure enough, Martinez leapt to his left to deny Mina and put Argentina in full command of the shootout, exclaiming: “Dance now! Dance now!”
Victory was sealed as Cardona was denied two Colombia penalties later, putting Messi and Martinez 90 minutes away from Copa America glory.
The former later took to Instagram to post a picture of him embracing a tearful Martinez, writing: “Proud and happy to belong to this group !!!
“One more goal accomplished … Thank you God for continuing to give me these moments. We go for the glory. Draw, without words, you deserve it BEAST !!!”
With Messi leading the charge and Martinez between the posts, Argentina have their best chance in years as they head to the Maracana.