Houston: Lionel Messi scored his 55th international goal to become his country's all-time leading scorer as Argentina thrashed hosts the United States 4-0 to ease into the final of the Centenary Copa America on Tuesday.
Many of those in the 70,858 crowd in Houston had come to witness the Barcelona star etch his name in the history books and he did not disappoint, curling a sensational free kick past Brad Guzan after 32 minutes to put Argentina 2-0 ahead.
Messi had been chopped down by Chris Wondolowski 25 yards from goal as he burst forward and the ensuing strike moved him clear of previous record holder Gabriel Batistuta's 54 goal tally.
"I am happy to have surpassed Batistuta's record and I want to thank my team mates, it's theirs as well," Messi, who turns 29 on Friday, told reporters.
The win, meanwhile, advanced Argentina into Sunday's final against either Colombia or reigning champions Chile, who meet in Chicago on Wednesday.
"We needed to get back in a final but we can never get ahead of ourselves," Argentine coach Gerardo Martino assed. "We've always taken it one game at a time."
"We are pleased with our general production (so far)."
Martino started Ezequiel Lavezzi up front in place of the injured Angel Di Maria and it took the China-based winger just three minutes to make his mark when he got on the end of a Messi chip to head over a stranded Guzan.
Gulf in class
Argentina dominated the first half and Messi's goal was just reward for their superiority but if the home side thought they could stage a second-half fightback, they were sadly mistaken.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made two changes at the break but Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain scored a third goal four minutes into the second period when he beat Guzan at the second time of asking after the keeper had saved his initial shot.
The U.S. enjoyed more possession as the match progressed but never managed a shot on goal for the entire game as Argentina exposed the gulf in class between the very best South American and North American sides.
Messi, who captained the side in his 112th international, almost grabbed a second eight minutes from time but Guzan turned his shot around the post for a corner.
However, the mercurial forward was on hand to have a say in the fourth goal, when his pinpoint pass set up Higuain to complete the rout with a simple tap in after 85 minutes.
The result means Argentina have scored 18 goals in five games and conceded just two as they power towards what they hope will be their 15th Copa America title, and first since 1993, to take them level with all-time leader Uruguay.
The win would also cap Messi's international career after years of disappointment. Argentina reached the finals of their last two tournaments, the Copa America in 2015, and the World Cup in 2014, but were narrowly beaten in both.
"When you concede a goal after three minutes against such a team... that's when you've already lost your mental battle," Klinsmann lamented. "Once they have a lead they're not giving that lead away.
"It's a special team Argentina," he added. "You saw tonight why they are the number one team in the world. I told the guys there's nothing to be ashamed of."
Factbox on Barcelona and Argentina forward Lionel Messi, who became his country's all-time top goalscorer on Tuesday when he scored his 55th international goal.
Born June 24, 1987 in Rosario, Argentina.
* Joined Barcelona as a 13-year-old in 2000 and shone in the youth ranks before then-coach Frank Rijkaard gave him his senior debut at the age of 16 in a friendly against Porto in 2003. * Made his La Liga debut in October 2004 and scored his first La Liga goal the following May in a match against Albacete at the Nou Camp.
* Scored six goals in 17 appearances in 2005-06 as Barca won La Liga for the second year in a row but did not feature in their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League final.
* Messi played a key role as Barca claimed six trophies in the calendar year of 2009 including the Champions League, La Liga, the King's Cup and the Club World Cup. Won the first of four consecutive World Player of the Year awards.
* Won La Liga again in 2010 and retained the World Player award, beating shortlisted Spanish World Cup winners and Barca team mates Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
* Inspired Barcelona to a 3-1 win against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final, scoring one goal and creating another.
* Helped Barca to a third consecutive La Liga title in 2010-11 and was on the scoresheet as they beat Santos 4-0 to win the Club World Cup.
* While Barcelona failed to retain either La Liga or the Champions League, Messi completed 2012 with an extraordinary total of 91 goals in all competitions, a record for a calendar year. He smashed the La Liga scoring record for one season in 2011-12 with 50 goals.
* Equalled the Champions League scoring record of 71 goals set by former Real Madrid and Schalke 04 forward Raul when he struck twice against Ajax Amsterdam at the end of 2014. Has since been overtaken by current Real forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
* Turned in a series of scintillating performances in 2014-15 as Barca romped to a treble of Champions League, La Liga and King's Cup titles.
* Won his eighth La Liga title and fourth Spanish Cup with Barcelona in 2015-16
* Led Argentina to the title at the 2005 World Youth Championship, scoring two penalties in a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the final.
* Made his debut for the senior side in a friendly against Hungary in August 2005 but was sent off less than a minute after coming on as a substitute for elbowing an opponent who had pulled his shirt.
* Played only a bit-part role at the 2006 World Cup. Argentina were knocked out in the quarter-finals by hosts Germany after a penalty shootout.
* Led Argentina to the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
* Part of the Argentina side coached by Diego Maradona at the 2010 World Cup that was beaten 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals. Messi failed to score and struggled to find his best form at the tournament in South Africa.
* After a season disrupted by injury, captained Argentina to the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where they lost 1-0 to Germany. Messi, who scored four goals at the finals, won the Golden Ball award for the tournament's best player.
* Scored a hat trick in 18 minutes after coming off the bench in Argentina's 5-0 win over Panama in the Centenary Copa America in Chicago.