Messi strikes for three as Argentina tops Panama

Lionel Messi (left) scored three goals in Argentina's Copa America Centenario win over Panama on June 10, 2016, in Chicago. (Photo: Mexsport)

CHICAGO – It didn’t take long for Lionel Messi to get into the Copa America Centenario swing of things.

The Barcelona superstar made his first appearance of the tournament, coming off the bench during the second half and scoring three goals as Argentina (2W-0D0L, 6 points) earned a 5-0 win over 10-man Panama (1-0-1, 3 ) on Friday.

With the result, the Argentineans maintained sole possession of first place in Group D, three points ahead of Panama and Chile (1-0-1, 3), which edged Bolivia, 2-1, earlier in the evening.

Argentina took a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute, when Nicolas Otamendi headed in from the edge of the six-yard box off a left-sided free kick by Angel Di Maria.

Panama gained a rhythm and had a chance to level in the 17th minute, but Roderick Miller’s header went wide of the right post.  On the play, teammate Valentin Pimentel suffered what appeared to be a mid- to lower-body injury and was replaced by Miguel Camargo.

The game changed in the 31st minute after Anibal Godoy was ejected for a second caution.  It was a loss that the Central Americans could not afford.

Following the break, the crowd of 53,885 at Soldier Field loudly chanted Messi’s name in the hope that he would enter the match.  Those persuasive voices were delighted in the 62nd minute as the five-time World Player of the Year took to the pitch in place of Augusto Fernandez.

Messi would strike three times and add an assist.

His first came in the 68th minute.  A hastily attempted clearance by Miller near his own penalty area ricocheted off Gonzalo Higuain and fell fortuitously to Messi for an easy left-footed finish.

Ten minutes later, Messi expertly placed a right-sided free kick inside the near post with his left foot to make it 3-0.

Then, in the 87th minute, a Panama turnover resulted in the ball ending up at Messi’s feet inside the box.  He held off defender Felipe Baloy to fire past goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.

Sergio Aguero completed the scoreline in the last minute of normal time, heading home from close range off Messi’s left-sided cross.

Group B returns to action on June 14 with Panama meeting Chile in Philadelphia and Argentina taking on Bolivia in Seattle.

BUDWEISER MAN OF THE MATCH: Lionel Messi (Argentina)