The knockout round is finally here.
After its 3-0 drumming of a second-string Costa Rica squad, Argentina avoided the unthinkable and advanced to the quarterfinals of Copa America despite two lackluster showings in group play.
The pressure will continue to be on the home country, as their expectations for the South American tournament are to win it all or expect a searing fan and media backlash.
Argentina face the dark horse to win the tournament on Saturday. Not only are Uruguay coming off last summer's improbable run to the World Cup semifinals, head coach Oscar Tabarez has brought in a world-class roster, and that's reason for serious concern for Argentina.
Surprisingly, Uruguay has also been subpar in group play. Tabarez's squad amassed only three goals, and defeated what basically amounted to an under-23 Mexico team, by an unimpressive 1-0 result.
Athletico Madrid forward Diego Forlan drilled a first-half free kick from outside the box, which Mexico goalkeeper Luis Michel blocked, but the ball slipped by him, and midfielder Alvaro Pereira was able to pounce on the effort. The result was a far cry from last summer, when Uruguay defeated Mexico by the same score at the World Cup, but against Mexico's best roster.
However, this Uruguay team is loaded with talent and they won't need much motivation when they face neighbor Argentina. Along with Forlan, Tabarez's squad includes striker Luis Suarez of Liverpool, veteran defensive midfielder Diego Perez, and versatile Porto star Alvaro Pereira.
Argentina has not faced any club in the tournament as strong as Uruguay, and might be fortunate to proceed to the semifinals. Head coach Sergio Batista is aware that his job could be on the line if Argentina doesn't produce in front of their home fans.
Argentina, however, have a sleeping giant who is eager to prove himself on another continent.
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi remains goalless after three games, but he had a fine assist against Costa Rica, and looked very comfortable with his teammates for the first time in the tournament. With an injection of confidence, Messi should be in better form in the quarterfinals, as has probably become better adjusted to his teammates after three games.
Messi has come under heavy criticism from many Argentina's press, and questions of his ability to play outside the near-perfect style of Barcelona are surfacing.
Regarding the journalists, it's not the first time that this has happened here, he said. But critics don't change my desire to come here and play with the national team. I come to play for Argentina because I feel it, because I want to play and I always try my best.
The club may have turned a corner when Batista made many changes for the Costa Rica match. But, again, that was against Costa Rica, and Uruguay are a much different team. This Uruguay team is ranked 18th in the world according to FIFA rankings (if you lend any credence to such things), and their home fans won't have to travel far to get to Santa Fe.
Batista will keep Tevez on the bench, as well as Esteban Cambiasso, and Ever Banega, and basically keep his lineup against Costa Rica. There will be plenty of pressure on the whole team -- not just their high-profile attacker.
All eyes will still be on Messi, though. With Argentina still having their backs to the wall, and facing an elite Uruguay squad, the world's best player will be expected to shine.
Probable Uruguay line-up: Muslera, Pereira, Victorino, Lugano, Caceres, Maximiliano Pereira, Arevalo, Gonzalez, Perez, Forlan, Suarez
Probable Argentina line-up: Romero, Zabaleta, Milito, Burdisso, Zanetti, Di Maria, Mascherano, Gago, Aguero, Messi, Higuain