Overmatched Bolivia falls behind 2-0 in first 15 minutes of final group-stage match.
At 6:56 p.m., less than half an hour before the scheduled kickoff time, anticipation turned to impatience. Necks craned for a glimpse of Lionel Messi, the Greatest Player in the World, kids in Barcelona jerseys tugging on their parents’ sleeves.
Argentina’s starting 11 was stretching in a circle on the edge of the box, and Messi was not among them. The team bus had been spotted stuck in traffic on I-90 East. The substitutes didn’t even bother to warm up on the field.
The match started, and though Argentina scored two early goals against an overmatched Bolivia squad, the object of the crowd’s collective attention didn’t shift.
“Mes-si,” the chant went up less than 20 minutes in, gathering in volume. “Mes-SI, MES-SI, MES-SI.”
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He made them wait until halftime but not a minute longer. When the teams emerged from the interval, No. 10 had taken off his warmup jacket, replacing Gonzalo Higuain.
Messi played the final 45 minutes of Argentina’s 3-0 rout of Bolivia on Tuesday night at CenturyLink Field, all the goals having already been scored.
“This is what happens,” Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said in Spanish of the chanting. “People want to see him. People pay all over the world to see him. … He has that obligation, to follow through for the fans who are paying to be there. He lives with that.”
The final group-stage match of Copa America Centenario was all but devoid of the drama that has characterized this year’s tournament.
Only an upset loss by five goals or more could have cost Argentina the top spot in Group D, and Bolivia was already eliminated from the field. The group winners were playing only to maintain sharpness — Messi more than most, since he had missed theopener with a back injury before scoring a hat trick in a 30-minute cameo against Panama.
“He knew he was going to play for 45 minutes (on Tuesday),” Martino said. “He’s growing compared to the last game. … He feels more and more confident. That’s what we were going to do, regardless.”
The closest Messi came to scoring was on the hour mark, when Argentina won a free kick on the top, right side of Bolivia’s penalty box.
Messi curled his shot around both the defensive wall and the left post. The ball hooked just inches wide of its target, a collective groan of disappointment rising from the crowd.
Moments later, after yet another Bolivia turnover, Messi flashed a series of stepover dribbles and a brief glimpse of his power.
There were stand-alone moments like that throughout his appearance — a single touch to control an awkward cross, a backheel just missing an onrushing teammate.
In the 77th minute, having been played in by a teammate but flagged offside, Messi cut the ball back between Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe’s legs and below his reaching hands. That one brought yelps and giggles of delight out of the 45,753 in attendance.
The match itself was as one-sided a contest as is possible at this level. The possession statistics came closest to painting the picture — Argentina with 86 percent — but even those seemed lenient on Bolivia. La Albiceleste completed 757 passes to its opponent’s 61, attempted 805 of them versus Bolivia’s 80.
Argentina passed around its opponents and through them. Erik Lamela opened the scoring in the 13th minute, a free kick taking a helpful deflection off Bolivia’s wall. Ezequiel Lavezza doubled the lead less than two minutes later, finishing off a rebounded Higuain header.
Argentine defender Victor Cuesta scored to set the final score in the 32nd minute. Bolivia packed numbers behind the ball to spare further embarrassment. And, finally, No. 10 trotted on and the crowd got what they were waiting for.