At times it has felt like the Copa America Centenario was created specifically for Lionel Messi.
From the marketing power he has to the way the stadiums Argentina play at are in his thrall, even when he’s not on the pitch, to the fact that this represents the best chance he has left to win a major trophy with his country.
To the point that a clearance by Panama, ricocheting violently off of Gonzalo Higuain’s face, just fell perfectly for Messi on the edge of the box.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring in Argentina’s 5-0 Copa America win against Panama on Friday
Messi scored his second goal of the night with a stunning free-kick, not long after coming off the bench
The Barcelona forward took less than seven minutes to score after being brought on from the bench
Lionel Messi’s introduction to make his Copa America 2016 bow was greeted with huge applause
MATCH INFORMATION & RATINGS
Argentina: Romero 6, Mercado 6.5, Funes Mori 6, Otamendi 7, Rojo 7.5, Mascherano 6.5, Fernandez 5.5 (Messi 61, 10), Banega 6, Gaitan 6, Higuain 6 (Aguero 76), Di Maria 7 (Lamela 43, 6.5).
Booked: Mascherano, Fernandez.
Goals: Otamendi 7, Messi 68, 78, 87, Aguero 90.
Panama: Penedo 5, Machado 5.5, Baloy 5, Miller 4.5, Henriquez 6, Gomez 5, Godoy 5.5, Pimentel 6, Quintero 5.5, Cooper 6 (Arroyo 76), Perez 5.5.
Booked: Perez, Baloy, Godoy, Cooper, Gomez.
Sent off: Godoy.
Referee: Joel Aguilar.
One touch to set himself, another to curl it home, and seven minutes after he was brought on for Augusto Fernandez, Messi was on the scoresheet.
Argentina were in need of another goal to settle themselves, with Panama starting to ask questions of them at the back and threaten their one goal advantage. Messi delivered it.
And then, he delivered again, ten minutes later, executing a perfect free-kick to score his second of the game.
And again, three minutes before time, completing his hat-trick after confusing Baloy with quick footwork in the box and burying it beyond Jaime Penedo. Three goals in 19 minutes.
And, yes, once again, splitting Panama’s defence with an exquisite pass which Marcos Rojo nodded back for Sergio Aguero to ram home to seal the victory and Argentina’s qualification for the quarter-finals.
Messi completed his hat-trick in just 19 minutes after coming off the bench at Soldier Field in Chicago
A member of security grabs a spectator who had run on the pitch to meet Messi in the second half
The Barcelona star points to the sky after netting his third and final goal of the night against Panama
Argentina’s players form a huddle around Messi after the forward found the back of the net
‘If Messi is inspired, he can kill anyone,’ said Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez before the game. And doesn’t he just know it.
It had taken just seven minutes for Argentina to take the lead. Angel di Maria, who was the Albiceleste’s best player against Chile in the first game, whipped in a perfect free-kick from the left and Nicolas Otamendi stretched to head home, free of any Panama markers.
Blas Perez, the most talented player on their team, had been booked for needlessly fouling Javier Mascherano for the set piece that led to the opening goal, and he was soon joined in the book by Felipe Baloy and Anibal Godoy.
Manchester City defender Nicolas Otamendi opened the scoring for Argentina in a routine victory
Otamendi hugs team-mates Ramiro Funes Mori (left) and Gabriel Mercado after opening the scoring
The latter was soon in trouble again, hitting Nicolas Gaitan in the face with his arm and receiving a second booking from referee Joel Aguilar, followed by his marching orders. The referee produced the yellow card, dropped it, but without batting an eyelid produced a second yellow card from his top pocket. Perhaps he anticipated needing to brandish it a lot.
Mascherano and Augusto Fernandez also made it into the book, along with Armando Cooper early in the second half, for another strong arm to Gaitan’s face. The Benfica man was standing in for Lionel Messi and, perhaps seeing the rough treatment his men were getting, Tata Martino opted to bring on Erik Lamela for the injured Di Maria, rather than the Barcelona No 10.
But with their lead a slim one, Messi was brought on early in the second half. And nothing was the same.
Panama struggled with discipline throughout the game and had Anibal Godoy sent off for two yellow cards