Chicago, June 11 (IANS) Lionel Messi scored a late hat-trick as Argentina thrashed 10-man Panama 5-0 to enter the quarter-finals of the Copa America Centenario football tournament here.
Coming on as a substitute in the 61st minute, Messi had an immediate effect, striking in the 68th, 78th and 87th minutes, to complete a hat-trick in just 21 minutes. It was a superb start to the tournament for Messi who had missed Argentina’s campaign opener against Chile due to injury.
He is now the joint top scorer in the tournament along with Philippe Coutinho of Brazil.
This was Messi’s fourth hat-trick in an Argentine jersey. He now has a tally of 53 international goals and needs to score just three more to join former striker Gabriel Batistuta as the highest ever scorer for the 14-time Copa America champions.
Nicolas Otamendi (7th minute) had found the early lead for Argentina while Sergio Aguero (90th) found the net in the final minute of regulation time as Argentina ensured qualification for the second round in some style.
The former World Cup winners are at the top of Group D with six points and a goal difference of +6 from two wins with a match in hand. They will play their final group match against Bolivia on June 15.
Panama remained joint second in the group along with Chile with three points from two matches each. Panama were reduced to 10 men in the 31st minute when Anibal Godoy picked up a second yellow card for lashing out at Nicolas Gaitan.
They have picked up a host of yellow cards, which means they will miss four players from their starting XI in their third and final group match against Chile. The winner of that match will join Argentina in the quarter-finals as the second team from Group D.
Before Messi came onto the field replacing Augusto Fernandez, Panama had given a good account of themselves.
Otamendi put Argentina in the lead by heading in off a free-kick by Angel di Maria. But if the thousands of Argentina fans in the Soldier Field Stadium thought the early goal signalled an easy win for their team, they were in for a disappointment.
Panama put in a solid defensive display to keep the ‘Albecieste’ at bay until late in the second half.
It took Messi to finally breach the Panama defence. A careless clearance by Panama defender Roderick Miller took a deflection off Gonzal Higuain’s hand to fall for Messi who found himself through on goal.
The Barcelona superstar produced a piece of brilliance soon after when he curved a free-kick over the defensive wall to beat Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo at the near post.
Messi completed his hat-trick soon after with some excellent footwork, beating three defenders before sending a curling shot in at the far post.
Aguero rounded off the tally in the 90th minute when Messi found Marcos Rojo with a beautiful pass. Rojo picked out Aguero who produced a beautiful finish.