Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez emerged as the hero, saving two penalties and sparing Lionel Messi’s blushes as reigning champions Argentina triumphed over Ecuador in a thrilling penalty shootout, securing their spot in the Copa America semifinals on Thursday.

Lisandro Martinez’s header had given the world champions a 1-0 lead just 10 minutes before halftime. However, Ecuador’s Kevin Rodriguez equalized in stoppage time, delighting the 69,456 fans at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Messi missed the opening penalty, chipping against the bar, but thanks to the heroics from Martinez, Argentina recovered to win the shootout 4-2 and progress into the semifinals, 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 shootout loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa final, but luckily for him, goalkeeper Martinez was in the mood to repeat his own past heroics.

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 shootout victory for Argentina over Colombia in the semifinal of the 2021 Copa America and famously saved two in the World Cup final win against France in Qatar.

Ecuador was 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 defense 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.

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

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, with Messi driving in a corner that 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 into the break with a single-goal lead.

Ecuador was 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 shootout, and the chance to upset the defending champions slipped away.

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