Buenos Aires, May 30 (IANS) Argentine superstar striker Lionel Messi did not disappoint his adoring fans in the Albiceleste’s send-off game for the FIFA World Cup in Russia, scoring a hat trick in a 4-0 victory over Haiti in a friendly at La Bombonera Stadium here.
Messi opened the scoring in the 16th minute by converting a penalty opportunity that had been awarded for Ricardo Ade’s hard challenge on Giovani Lo Celso, reports Efe.
Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Tagliafico and Angel Di Maria were unable to finish off scoring chances over the remainder of the first half, but the floodgates opened 12 minutes after the end of intermission.
Haitian goalkeeper Johny Placide, who had denied Argentina on different occasions in the first half, made a save on a header by Lo Celso in the 57th minute, but Messi was there to boot home the rebound.
A trio of attackers – Maximiliano Meza, Sergio Agüero and Cristian Pavon – were then sent on as substitutes a minute later and had an immediate impact.
In the 65th minute, Pavon maneuvered around three defenders near the sideline before setting up an oncoming Messi for his hat-trick goal.
The game’s final score came three minutes later when Messi threaded a pass into the area for Agüero, who scored in his first game back from a knee injury.
Messi’s brilliance and the return of the Manchester City star provide some hope for Argentine fans just 15 days from the start of the World Cup and helped somewhat to erase the memory of a 1-6 shellacking at the hands of Spain in a friendly in late March, a game that neither Messi nor Agüero played.
Critics, however, can still grumble that Argentina remains too reliant on the FC Barcelona talisman.
Head coach Jorge Sampaoli hit on both points after Tuesday night’s win.
“The most important thing is that we’re heading (to Russia) with all our players fit. There’s no one injured,” he said at a post-match press conference. “
But he also stressed the importance of functioning as a cohesive unit.
“The important thing is for Argentina to operate not as a selection (of All-Stars) but as a team. That’s what we’re working toward,” Sampaoli added.
Argentina has one more friendly against Israel in Jerusalem on June 9 before starting play in Russia in Group D, which also includes Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria.