Lionel Messi scored a hattrick in the second half as he made his Copa America Centenario debut, helping Argentina beat Panama 5-0.
Argentina takes flight early
Argentina, who were heavy favorites to win this match, started out the game by controlling possession and controlling the chances early on. They got off to a flying start in the 7th minute off a set piece. Off a free kick, Angel Di Maria found Nicolas Otamendi right in front of goal. The Manchester City defender did just enough to get a clean header on target and it beat Panama goalie Alex Rodriguez at his far post. It was the slightest of touches, but it was just enough to sneak the ball into the back of the net. It was the perfect start for Argentina but on the other hand, it wasn't for Panama. They would have felt that this was a goal they easily could have prevented, and that Rodriguez must do better.
Panama, who were coming off their first win in Copa America, started to put pressure immediately after. They had a great chance in the 18th minute when a header went just wide of the post off a set piece. Blas Perez, who is the main attacker for Panama, had a couple of chances in the box that were blocked as the underdogs pushed for an equalizer. They were able to get their first shot on goal in the 20th minute when they forced Sergio Romero to make a save sliding to his left. As Panama began getting more and more into the game, they began to have more time on the ball and the chances subsequently started to come in. A golden opportunity arose in the 28th minute when Panama had a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. The shot from the free kick forced Romero to push it away for a corner. The corner turned out to be even more interesting as Romero completely missed the corner and the proceeding shot by Perez had to be blocked.
But things took a cruel twist for Panama as Anibal Gudoy received his second booking around the 30th minute and was then sent off. All of Panama's momentum was wiped out by the red card, and Los Canaleros were suddenly down to 10 men.
Argentina suffered a big blow at the end of the first half when Di Maria limped off injured in the 43rd minute. He was replaced by Erik Lamela but it was a big loss for Argentina as they lost their best player on the pitch. With Argentina struggling to find offensive chances for much of the first half, losing Di Maria did not help one bit.
Lionel Messi makes his Copa America debut in style
La Albiceleste had a fantastic chance to double their lead in the 48th minute. A cross came in for Gonzalo Higuain, but it went way over the striker's head. It fell straight to Marcus Rojo and the Manchester United right back took a shot with his left boot. The shot hit a Panama defender and trickled towards the goal. But thankfully for Panama, it was gathered by Rodriguez. They had an even better chance in the 54th minute. Higuain was played one on one in the box and looked like he was destined to score. But at the last moment, a combination of a defenders foot and Higuain's failing touch was enough for his shot to trickle wide.
After losing a playmaker in Di Maria, Argentina subbed on Lionel Messi in the 61st minute and got one on the field. The crowd in Chicago roared as he was subbed on for Augusto Fernandez. It seemed to invigorate Argentina quickly; after the substitution, they had a chance on goal when Lamela ran into the box, but his touch wasn't enough to push it past the goalkeeper.
But in the 69th minute, Argentina doubled their lead, and it was who else but Messi who scored. A crazy clearance by Panama saw the ball bounce off Higuain and fell straight to Messi. The keeper had no chance as he curled the ball into the bottom corner for the goal. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time for Messi. But one on one with the keeper, nobody could stop that. Panama nearly got a goal back when they countered off a corner kick. They had a two on one with Javier Mascherano being the only defender back for Argentina, but the FC Barcelona defender made a huge clearance and erased the chance completely. It was a shame that Panama didn't even get a shot off from that chance as it was their best chance of the half thus far.
"If you make a mistake around Messi, he will make you pay," said Panama head coach Hernán Darío Gómez when asked about the goal that started Messi's hat trick campaign.
"We lost the game when we started doubting our defensive abilities," he also added in the post-game press conference.
Messi capped off his debut with another goal in the 79th minute. Standing over a free kick in the box, Messi curled a shot into the right corner of the goal and left Fernandez helpless. It was a goal for the ages and a typical free kick from one of the best players in the world. It was truly a goal to witness.
They nearly added a fourth when Sergio Aguero put the ball into the back of the net but the Man City striker was ruled offside. But, Argentina added a fourth goal in the 87th minute as Messi capped off his hattrick. He made a good run into the box, pulled the ball back and curled the ball again into the left corner. It was three goals in the second half for the FC Barcelona star. In the 90th minute, he later played a great ball to Rojo who headed it back to Aguero who headed it into an open net.
It was a dominant 5-0 victory as Argentina crushed Panama to stay top of group D.