By Vicente L. Panetta
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LA SERENA, Chile _ Sergio Aguero scored early in the second half to give Argentina an important 1-0 win over defending champion Uruguay in the Copa America on Tuesday, moving the title-favourites into strong position to advance past the group stage of the South American tournament.
Aguero scored the winner with a diving header in the 56th minute, leaving Argentina in first place of Group B along with Paraguay, which earlier Tuesday defeated Jamaica 1-0. Both teams have four points from two matches. Uruguay has three points and Jamaica has zero.
A draw against Jamaica on Saturday will be enough to secure Argentina a spot in the tournament’s quarterfinals. Uruguay will need to beat Paraguay on the same day to guarantee a place in the next round and keep its title defence alive. The top two teams in each of the three groups advance, plus the two-best third-place finishers.
Lionel Messi and his teammates were coming off a disappointing 2-2 draw against Paraguay in the opener after conceding a late equalizer, and another setback on Tuesday would have dropped Argentina to third place in the group going into the final round.
The Argentines didn’t play well, but controlled possession at the La Portada Stadium. Messi was not able to create many chances for his teammates and was not much of a threat throughout the game.
“Uruguay had two scoring chances and when we tried to attack they could’ve equalized,” Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said. “It showed that it’s important for us to keep possession, and when we have the ball, the real Argentina can be seen.”
Aguero scored the crucial winner with a remarkable header after a driving cross by his Manchester City club teammate Pablo Zabaleta, thrusting himself toward the ball and sending it into the top corner of the net. It was Aguero’s second goal of the tournament, and 25th with the national team.
Uruguay striker Diego Rolan had a great chance to equalize off a rebound from Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero in the 75th, but he sent his close-range shot over the crossbar. Substitute Abel Hernandez also came close in the 90th, but his low shot from inside the area was stopped by Romero.
Uruguay, which opened with a 1-0 win over Jamaica, is playing the Copa America without star striker Luis Suarez, who remains suspended for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in last year’s World Cup.
With a team filled with high-profile players, Argentina arrived as a top favourite to win the Copa America and end the nation’s 22-year title drought.
Argentina hasn’t won a significant trophy since the 1993 Copa America in Ecuador, when Messi was six years old. The Argentines were eliminated by eventual champion Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the Copa America at home in 2011, and lost consecutive finals to rival Brazil in 2004 and 2007.