Finally last night, Argentina woke up. A 3-0 win over Costa Rica secured second place in the group and passage to a quarter-final in Santa Fe, but this was about more than simple statistics or progression. This was about Argentina discovering a way to play, and about Lionel Messi finding his place within that set-up. In the second half, he was quite brilliant and at last in the Copa América looked like the best player in the world.
It ended in smiles and a sense of relief, but first Argentina had to suffer.
Two minutes before half-time, Gonzalo Higuaín blasted yet another chance over the top and two journalists three rows in front of me rose instinctively to their feet, arms reaching imploringly to the heavens, eyes wide with disbelief. It was, by my count, Argentina's 13th chance of a first half in which they had pummelled Costa Rica and somehow failed to score.
And then a looping clearance dropped to Fernando Gago 25 yards out. To even attempt a volley from there was ridiculous, but nothing else had worked and there were only seconds left till half-time. He caught it sweetly, the goalkeeper Leonel Moreira was wrong-footed and the ball bounced back off his shins to Sergio Agüero, who rolled the ball into an empty net. Argentina, at last, had their goal, and for the first time in this tournament were ahead.
It was a lead long overdue. This was much Argentina's best performance so far and, in many ways, the first game that felt like a real event: you could tell they were taking it seriously by the fact that it kicked off on time. There were giant cannon firing blue-and-white confetti in the air before the anthems, a common enough sight at Argentinian league games, but one that remains evocative of the 1978 World Cup.
Typically for Argentina in this tournament, though, it did not quite go right, and the cannon on the far left malfunctioned, spewing out not small squares of paper, but a plume of noxious smoke.
On the pitch Argentina's left flank fired far more surely than it had in either of the previous two games, which only raised the question even more strongly of why Sergio Batista, the coach, had ever thought playing Carlos Tevez on that side was a good idea. When he first took charge, he had said he couldn't include Tevez "for tactical reasons", a phrase in which "tactical" was generally perceived as meaning "political" given Tevez's overt support for Batista's predecessor, Diego Maradona.
In all the pre-tournament friendlies, Angel di María had played on the left; only in the week before the tournament did reports emerge from training that Tevez was in the starting line-up. Batista, fairly evidently, had bowed to public opinion, and perhaps a word from the president of the Argentinian Football association, Julio Grondona.
After the first two games, Batista had little left to lose. Whether this was his selection or, as has been suggested, Messi's, hardly matters beside the fact that it worked. Javier Mascherano sat very deep in midfield, the classic Barcelona role that allowed the full-backs, Pablo Zabaleta in particular, to advance.
Slightly advanced of him, to his right, was Gago, operating as a transition player, somebody with defensive qualities but offering far more thrust than Éver Banega had in the same position earlier in the tournament. And advanced of him again, to the left, was Di María, who got forward far more naturally than Esteban Cambiasso had. He may not have the Internazionale midfielder's defensive qualities, but that's an issue for later in the tournament.
Argentina is a country obsessed with the notion of "el diez", the No10, the player who links midfield and attack. It produces them in vast numbers and, as a corollary, also produces huge numbers of 5s, the holding players whose job it is to stifle the 10. It is only a slight simplification to say that the side selected by Batista for the opening two games was made up of a back four and fives and tens. Gago has become a five, but he began life as a 10, and so offers a link between the two roles. Di María doesn't fit either template.
With Higuaín at centre-forward, Messi drifting in from the right – in which he was aided by Zabaleta's thrusts – and Agüero on the left, Argentina at last had balance.
Where previously there had been merely lines, now there were triangles. Short passing options abounded. Chance followed chance followed chance. Nicolás Burdisso headed against the post, Moreira saved from Higuain and Agüero, Higuaín put about half-a-dozen chances over. There was anxiety, but here it seemed restricted to the crowd and the press box; on the pitch, Argentina just kept playing and once one goal came, the only issue was how many would follow.
"We'd talked enough about the soul of the individual," said Batista. "We had to return to the security of the collective. Lionel knows how to overcome these situations. He has personality. It wasn't that his team-mates [before] were selfish, but things didn't work out. Today, he took up better positions."
Once Argentina had the lead, Messi began to come central more often with Higuain switching right. His impact was devastating. Suddenly, this was the Messi of Barcelona. A dart, a pass, and Agüero made it 2-0. A dart, a pass, and Higuaín was pulled back in the box for a penalty that wasn't awarded. A dart, a pass and Di María walloped a third. Tangalera, the rhea mascot of the tournament (essentially a cross between an ostrich and Denis Healey) performed an exultant knee-slide down the touchline, and then couldn't get up; a flightless bird rendered legless by the genius of Messi.
Another dart, another pass and Ezequiel Lazezzi hit the post. Before kick-off the crowd had chanted his name almost in sympathy, offering support for a player they desperately wanted to see perform; by quarter of an hour into the second half the chants were straightforwardly exultant.
It was, it should be remembered, only a second-string Costa Rica; it would be premature to declare all of Argentina's problems over, but this was much, much better. After seven games at last one of the seeds has won a match in this tournament; and, at last, the hosts looked like potential winners.