He came, he saw and he conquered. There were two phases to Friday’s Copa America Centenario match – before Messi and after Messi. Argentina were winning 1-0 since the 7th minute thanks to an Otamendi goal, but a side in which Javier Mascherano featured for the ninety minutes had still failed to exert their authority on a Panama side that was playing with ten men after Godoy had been sent off in the first half.
After 61 minutes, Leo Messi came on for Augusto Fernández and changed the game single-handedly. He took just six minutes to find the net and followed that up with another of his inch-perfect free kicks. He’d only been on the field for 25 minutes when he had already completed his hat-trick, slotting a left-footed strike past Panama keeper Pinedo to make it 4-0. There was still time for Sergio Agüero to add a fifth one minute from the end to complete the rout.
But there was just one name on people’s lips as they left Soldier Field in Chicago, and that name was Leo Messi. He has yet to win a major international for his country, and has not tired of talking about how much winning this tournament would mean to him.
Friday night was a statement of intent. Watch out America, here comes Leo Messi! The win is enough to secure Argentina a second round berth regardless of what happens in their final match with Bolivia.
"I was playing with a bit of pain” he admitted after the match. “But luckily it gradually started fading away. We thought the best thing was to start things slowly, just play a bit and that’s what happened.”
If three goals in twenty minutes is ‘taking it slowly’, one shudders to think what Messi can do when he ups his pace! “We wanted to win and secure top spot and that’s what we did” he added. “The team is calmly gaining strength.”
Messi’s team-mate Claudio Bravo’s bid to make the last eight as well took a mighty step in the right direction on Friday’s other Group D fixture. After losing to Messi-less Argentina in their opening fixture, defending champions Chile were heading for a 1-1 draw with Bolivia that would have left them with just one point from their first two outings.
Arturo Vidal had put Chile ahead just before the break but Jhasmani Campo replied with a stunning free-kick for the Bolivians. Right at the very last gasp, Chile were awarded a somewhat soft penalty, Vidal converted, and a draw with Panama on the final day will now be enough to see Chile through along with Argentina.