CHICAGO – Lionel Messi scored three goals in a dazzling second-half display in his return from a back injury, and Argentina beat Panama 5-0 on Friday night to clinch a spot in the knockout round of the Copa America Centario.
Messi replaced Augusto Fernandez in the 61st minute, drawing a big ovation from a sea of No. 10 Argentina jerseys and the familiar colors of Barcelona, his club team. A few minutes later, the five-time FIFA Player of the Year got right back to work.
First, Roderick Miller's clearing attempt for Panama went off Gonzalo Higuain's hands as he went to protect his face and right to Messi, who took a couple dribbles and then beat Jaime Penedo on the ground to the goaltender's right side. Then Messi sent a curling free kick into the top left corner of the goal in the 78th minute, making it 3-0 and drawing gasps from the crowd of 53,885.
A left-footed chip past Penedo on the goalkeeper's right side finished off Messi's fourth international hat trick, joining friendlies against Switzerland and Brazil in 2012, and Guatemala in 2013.