Coach: Messi ‘quite possible’ to start in Copa vs Venezuela

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Lionel Messi will play — and possibly start — in Argentina’s Copa America quarterfinal match against Venezuela.

That doesn’t mean Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel is ready to give up.

“The chances (of advancing) will depend on our performance. Otherwise I would have stayed home watching this tournament on TV,” he said Friday, adding that he had never been to Boston — or north of Miami, for that matter. “If I didn’t have faith that our team could win, I would have gone to Disneyland.”

Since leading Barcelona to a 2-0 win over Sevilla to win the Copa del Rey on May 22, Messi has suffered a back injury that kept him on the sideline when the Copa America group stage began. After sitting out the opener against Chile, he played 29 minutes against Panama — but still managed a hat trick — and came on as a substitute in the group stage finale against Bolivia in Seattle on Tuesday.

Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said Messi “is definitely in good shape to play from the beginning, so it’s quite possible that he will be a starter.”

“He has evolved in the right path,” Martino said.

The winner of the match between Venezuela and Argentina will play the United States in the semifinals. Although Argentina’s ranking and tradition make it a heavy favorite, La Albiceleste have struggled to win major tournaments over the past two decades.

Since winning the Copa America in 1993, they have finished second in the tournament three times and also lost in the 2014 World Cup final.

“We need to win in order to be recognized,” Martino said. “For the last few years, the team has been playing well in all the decisive games and it bodes well for this tournament.”

Venezuela finished fourth in the last Copa America, but La Vinotinto are big underdogs against the powerhouse Argentina. Still, Dudamel didn’t bring his team here to watch Messi’s coronation.

“The goal is not to eliminate Argentina, it is to continue,” he said. “We have great soccer players, we are very ambitious and we are achieving in each stage the goals that we have set for ourselves.”

Dudamel said having the opportunity to play against Messi is a challenge, but it’s also something to motivate his players.

“How can that not inspire you, if you’re facing one of the best players in the world? For many, he is the best player in the world,” Dudamel said. They are competitive. They rise up to the challenge. It’s not only Messi. Argentina has great players.”

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