Sparse crowds and inflated ticket prices have been the talk of the Copa America Centanario during its opening week. With Neymar out, Luis Suarez sidelined and the United States not quite to the level where they can draw sold out crowds even against the No. 3 team in the FIFA rankings (Columbia), only two nations have been able to pack stadiums across the US: Mexico and Argentina.
It isn’t hard to understand why that is the case. There is no walling off Mexican fans from their beloved El Tri and there is nothing more appealing to any football fan than the chance to see Lionel Messi play in person. Although Mexico have more than delivered for its fans with entertaining wins against Uruguay and Jamaica, fans who ponied up to see Messi in action were left wanting after Argentina’s first 130 minutes in this tournament.
After Messi missed Argentina’s 2-1 win against Chile, he started the Albiceleste’s second game against Panama on the bench as well. The crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago chanted Messi’s name almost from kickoff on Saturday night, pleading with Gerardo Martino to unleash the world’s greatest player on United States soil.
And in the 61st minute, the fans got their wish.
Argentina only lead 1-0 when Messi entered the game, but the result was never in doubt. Given his lack of game fitness, it would have been easy and forgivable for Messi to come on and have a runabout in the game’s final half hour. But this is the best player in the world we are talking about, and after reaching the final in each of Argentina’s past two major tournaments (the World Cup and last year’s Copa America) before falling short, Messi is a man on a mission to deliver a trophy for the Albiceleste.
Messi netted a hat trick in his half-an-hour on the pitch, dazzling with his pinpoint passes and spectacular curved shots. Twice he beat Panama’s keeper one-on-one after having the ball fall to his feet near the edge of the box and his 28-yard free kick was picture perfect. And if coming in and making the result go from an underwhelming 1-0 victory to a crushing 4-0 win wasn’t enough, Messi delivered an inch perfect pass to Marcos Rojo down the left flank in the closing minutes, allowing Rojo to head the ball down to Sergio Aguero for Argentina’s fifth goal.
The Albiceleste have had two good games to start this tournament, and with Messi back in the side they certainly look like the favorite to win the tournament. Argentina’s opening win against Chile was an important one; without Messi, the team played a counterattacking style perfectly suited for Angel Di Maria and controlled Chile in the middle of the park with the duo of Javier Mascherano and Augusto Fernandez, giving Martino a tactical change of plans for his back pocket.
That said, Di Maria was subbed off in the first half against Panama with what is believed to be an abductor injury. Injuries have been the unfortunate story of Di Maria’s international career during the past few years, and Argentina will be losing one its most dangerous weapons if he is forced to miss anything more than its final group stage game against Bolivia.
But with Messi back and with solid players such as Nicolas Gaitan or Erik Lamela around if a Di Maria replacement is necessary, Argentina are still more than capable of winning this tournament. And, as Messi’s arrival proved, the Albiceleste are more than worth the price of admission.