Watch: Messi subs in, scores hat trick for Argentina in Copa America
It didn't take Lionel Messi long to make an impact at Copa America.
The Argentina superstar subbed into Friday's match vs. Panama at the hour mark, scored nine minutes later, added a phenomenal free kick golazo and then another finish all within 26 minutes, netting a hat trick to break open Argentina's Group C encounter, which ended with a 5-0 win.
Messi was nursing a back injury, suffered in a pre-Copa America friendly against Honduras, and he missed the opening match against Chile. It took until the 60th minute for him to come on to a Soldier Field crowd anticipating his arrival, and he did not disappoint.
The crowd was brought to its feet when he entered for Augusto Fernandez, chanting "Mes-si, Mes-si!" even as he warmed up on the sideline.
He scored nine minutes later, on a simple chance in the box. There was a hint of a handball as Gonzalo Higuain blocked a clearance at the edge of the Panama box, but Messi had the ball fall to him in a scoring position in close range, and he finished with ease for his first goal of the tournament:
Ten minutes later, he had his second, and it was a beauty. Messi lined up a free kick from about 25 yards out, curling a left-footed blast into the upper right-hand corner of the net to break the game wide open:
Messi completed his hat trick by receiving a pass off a turnover, cutting back on a defender and beating Penedo again. He is tied for the tournament's lead in goals with Brazil's Philippe Coutinho with three.
Messi now has 53 international goals, three shy of Gabriel Batistuta's national record, and he had a hand in Argentina's fifth as well. His long diagonal to Marcos Rojo was headed back to Sergio Aguero, and the Manchester City forward headed home to complete the scoring.
Even without its star player starting, La Albiceleste got off to a rocking start.
Nicolas Otamendi scored seven minutes in, heading home a free kick from Angel Di Maria to give Argentina an early advantage. Blas Perez gifted Argentina the free kick with foul (and a yellow card, which rules him out of the group finale against Chile), and Di Maria took advantage. He curled a perfect kick into Otamendi's path, and the Manchester City center back headed past Jaime Penedo. Di Maria has played a role in all of Argentina's first three goals of the tournament, scoring one and assisting on two others:
The match devolved into a series of fouls and physical play, symbolized best by this exchange between Felipe Baloy and Javier Mascherano, with both receiving yellow cards for their involvement in this:
The yellow card ruled Baloy out of Panama's finale vs. Chile through card accumulation, but he's far from alone. Anibal Godoy earned his second yellow of the match for this flailing arm thrown at Nicolas Gaitan, reducing Panama to 10 men:
Blas Perez and Armando Cooper also received their second yellow cards of the group stage, meaning Los Canaleros will be down four starters when facing Chile in the Group D finale.
You can watch that match and all of Copa America Centenario live in Spanish on Fubo TV. Sign up here for a free 24-hour trial.