It's all about Lionel Messi as Argentina cruises through Copa America
SEATTLE — No, Lionel Messi didn't score. But in the end, it didn't really matter.
In Argentina's 3-0 rout of Bolivia on Tuesday night to close out the group stage of the Copa America Centenario, Messi didn't come on until halftime but did his best to give an eager crowd what it wanted.
The match had settled into a lull and Argentina was finding it difficult to break past a heavily bunkered Bolivia side, so Messi decided to have some fun. With goalkeeper Carlos Lampe way off his line and Messi up against the end line, he nutmegged Lampe and was in the clear for an open shot on net. The offside flag, however, went up to spoil the fun, but that didn't make the crowd love it any less.
The 45,753 fans at CenturyLink Field were eager to see magic from the opening minutes, when loud chants of "Mes-si!" rung around the stadium — a plea they would reprise several times throughout the first half until they got their wish. He danced his way through green shirts, drawing applause with every moment of flair, but ultimately couldn't find a goal.
"People want to see him," coach Tata Martino said afterward through a translator. "People all over the world pay to see him. He has to deal with that but he has that obligation to fill with the fans. He understands that and he lives with that."
The pressure was certainly on Messi to do something, even as Bolivia made it difficult, putting nine men behind the ball for much of the second half. Bolivia had just 14 percent of the possession on the night, but the pass breakdown paints a starker contrast: Argentina recorded 757 passes to Bolivia's 61.
The presence of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner may always carry a sense of anticipation, but especially so lately: Messi sits just one goal away from tying the Argentina all-time scoring record set by Gabriel Batistuta, who has scored 54.
After Messi's stunning hat trick in just 29 minutes of action during Argentina's previous match -- 19 minutes spanning all three goals -- expectation is high that Messi can reach and even surpass that record in this Copa America. After all, Argentina are the favorites to go all the way and they didn't call those odds into question on Tuesday as they steamrolled their way past Bolivia.
Although it was an easy match on paper, Messi and Argentina's performance still proved why they are the team to beat. There was nothing at stake -- Argentina had all but won Group D with little resistance -- but they still managed to dazzle, even as some of their best players were benched for injury and to avoid yellow card accumulation.
A 13th-minute free kick from Tottenham's Erik Lamela took a fortunate deflection off the wall, but was a strong effort nonetheless. Two minutes later, Ezequiel Lavezzi smashed a rebound home after Lampe blocked Gonzalo Higuain's header. Victor Cuesta earned his first international goal by getting a toe on a Lavezzi effort.
In short: The Argentinians yet again made it look easy as the only team in the tournament to win all three group stage games. And when Argentina enters the quarterfinal round on Saturday, Messi will be front and center, with Martino telling reporters that Messi is expected to start when they face Venezuela.
More fireworks from Messi at Copa America, it seems, are yet to come.