CHICAGO • Lionel Messi came off the bench and produced a hat-trick in a space of 19 minutes, as Argentina cruised into the Copa America Centenario quarter-finals with a 5-0 rout of Panama on Friday.
The forward had been forced to delay his debut in the tournament after a slow recovery from a lower back injury, with Argentina coach Gerardo Martino surprisingly naming him among the substitutes once more.
But the 28-year-old wasted no time in stamping his genius on the tournament, after coming on in the 61st minute to replace Augusto Fernandez, with Argentina leading the Group D game 1-0.
An electrifying cameo from the Barcelona superstar began with his first goal of the tournament on 68 minutes, finishing with aplomb after Gonzalo Higuain's shot bounced off a Panamanian defender into his path.
But there was no question of luck with his second, with Messi curling a wonderful free kick into the top corner to bring fans at Soldier Field to their feet in the 78th minute.
With Panama players' heads down, he completed his quick-fire hat trick - skipping clear of a marker inside the penalty area to finish emphatically for La Albiceleste to lead 4-0.
There was still time for him to have a hand in Argentina's fifth goal, providing a sublime pass in the build-up to Sergio Aguero's close-range headed effort in the last minute.
Aguero's Manchester City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi had opened the scoring for Argentina in the seventh minute, heading home an Angel di Maria free kick from close range.
"I'm happy to be playing again, I really wanted to play tonight," Messi said. "I'm very happy with the result and the goals.
"My back was a bit painful at the start but it went away. I think we are where we want to be, which is getting better."
Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez, the experienced Colombian, was left in awe by Messi's masterclass. "Messi is a monster," he said. "Before he came on the match was quite even. But with Messi you make one mistake, and you pay for it."
It was a fitting response from Messi, a veteran of Argentina's agonising defeats in the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America finals.
He had arrived in the United States late, joining the squad only after returning to Spain to give evidence in his tax fraud trial.
On Thursday, he had faced a fresh round of criticism from Argentina legend Diego Maradona, who accused Messi of lacking "the personality to be a leader" during remarks to journalists in Paris on the eve of Euro 2016.
The team's convincing display, though, was marred by an injury to di Maria, who limped off in the first half to extend his miserable record of injuries in major tournaments.
The Paris Saint-Germain winger was injured in the 2014 World Cup, missing the final against Germany, and was also injured during last year's Copa America in Chile.
The victory sees Argentina, convincing 2-1 winners over Chile in their opening game, guaranteed a spot in the last eight. They are now firmly on course to top Group D, with the final game to come against Bolivia, who are without a point so far.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE