June 11, 2016 09:33 AM NPT
CHICAGO, June 11: Argentina raced out to a seventh-minute lead thanks to an unlikely source in centre-back Otamendi.
Despite being deemed fit to play by coach Gerardo Martino, Messi was named among the substitutes in Chicago, but the captain came off the bench and took the game by storm to seal Argentina's passage through to the knockout round of the Copa América at Soldier Field.
Scoring a breath-taking second-half hattrick upon his return, Argentina qualifies for the Copa America quarter-finals with courtesy of a 5-0 demolition of 10-man Panama in Group D on Friday.
Defender Nicolas Otamendi had given Argentina a seventh-minute lead and after Panama's Anibal Godoy saw red just past the half-hour mark, Messi utilised his team's numerical advantage within eight minutes of his introduction in the 68th minute.
Messi brought the crowd to their feet 10 minutes later with an exquisite free-kick and he completed his scoring three minutes from time for his 53rd international goal, moving to within three of the all-time record held by Gabriel Batistuta.
And substitute Sergio Aguero scored from close range in the 90th minute as the spirited Panama side was blown away in the second half.
Back-to-back wins saw Argentina improve to six points, meaning the 14-time Copa winners cannot be eliminated as defending champions Chile and Panama sit three points adrift ahead of their final-game fixture.
Argentina were unchanged from their 2-1 win over Chile last week, with Messi once again named among the substitutes.