Lionel Messi came off the bench to score a hat-trick and guide Argentina into the quarter-finals of the Copa América Centenario as they cruised past Panama at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Argentine side had gone into half-time with a 1-0 lead after Nicolas Otamendi had headed a free-kick into the Panama net after just seven minutes, and they also boasted a man advantage due to Anibal Godoy being sent off after two bookable offences.
Despite having 10-men, Panama had been able to prevent their opponents from extending their lead, prompting the introduction of Barcelona star Messi on the hour mark.
The 28-year-old, who missed his team’s opening victory over Chile with a back injury, took just seven minutes to find the net after producing a composed finish following a Panama clearance which was charged down.
Messi doubled his tally with a superb curling free-kick, before completing his hat-trick three minutes from time by calmly slotting beyond Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo from close range.
Sergio Aguero added further gloss to the scoreline by heading in a fifth goal in the final minute as Argentina recorded their second straight win.
It keeps their pursuit of a first major title since 1993 alive, with their win confirming their place in the knock-out phase.
Defending champions Chile boosted their prospects of joining Argentina, after a late penalty from Arturo Vidal gave them a 2-1 victory over Bolivia in the other Group D clash.
Vidal had given Chile the lead in the contest after playing a one-two with Mauricio Pinilla before slotting into the Bolivia net from near the penalty spot, early in the second half.
Jhasmani Campos provided a stunning response by curling a long-range free-kick into the top corner of the Chilean goal, with both sides looking on course to claim their first point of the group.
Deep into eight minutes of added time at the end of the match, Chile were awarded a controversial penalty when Alexis Sánchez’s cross was ruled to have been handled by Bolivia’s Luis Gutiérrez.
Vidal kept his composure to fire Chile to victory and move them into second place in the group on goal difference over Panama.
Both teams are due to meet in their final group match on Tuesday (June 14) as they battle to join Argentina in the quarter-finals.
Bolivia have now been eliminated from the tournament.
By Michael Pavitt
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz