He was the main attraction for tonight's Copa America Group D game between Argentina and Panama. Fans packed Chicago's Soldier Field to witness arguably the world's best player in action. Unfortunately for the thousands of fans in attendance, Lionel Messi did not start the game.
Lionel Messi had missed Argentina's first Copa America match vs Chile due to injury and had not recovered 100% to warrant a spot on Tata Martino's starting lineup
Nicolas Otamendi got on the scoresheet early on and a 32nd minute red card by Anibal Godoy meant Panama was down a goal and down a man after 45 minutes. The pre-game favorites, Argentina, were certain to achieve victory. This was bitersweet news for Argentina, and Messi fans alike. The consensus thought was that Messi would not be needed for the rest of the game as putting him on against a tough-tackling Panama side could be risky. But things changed. Argentina started the 2nd half very sloppily and if it wasn't for Javier Mascherano's heroics, Panama could have equalized the game on a 2-on-1 opportunity. Lionel Messi was soon instructed to speed up his warmup as he would be making an appearance. This led to a crowd uproar the moment Messi began to warm up and an even louder one when he was finally subsituted in at the 60th minute
What happened in the next 30 minutes was vintage Messi magic. It took the Argentine captain only 8 minutes to get his name on the 2016 Copa America Centenario scorers list. A controversial deflection landed on Messi's feet as he calmly slotted the ball to Jaime Penedo's bottom right side.
The next goal, which came in 10 minutes later, was not only a fair goal, but a world class goal. It was the type that you'd expect a player with Messi's quality to put in, yet excites when watching the replay.
If a world-class free-kick wasn't enough to give the Chicago crowd their money's worth, then Lionel Messi sealing his hat-trick surely sealed the deal. The finish was similar to his first goal, albeit with no controversy this time.
The Messi show wasn't over though, although Panama wished it was. As the game drew closer to the end, Lionel Messi played a perfect long pass to Marcos Rojo who headed it to Sergio Aguero for an easy finish.
The whistle soon blew to end Panama's pain. Argentina's 5-0 victory means La Albiceleste have qualified to the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario. Panama and Chile will fight for the other spot in the quarterfinals, while fans in Chicago leave more than satisfied with what they watched.