Lionel Messi made a triumphant return to the Argentina first team on Friday evening, smashing three goals for the away team as they destroyed Guatemala 4-0. 'La Pulga's' triple saw him overcome Diego Maradona in the Albiceleste top scorer rankings, tying with Hernan Crespo on 35, while Augusto Fernandez also found the net in a routine win.
Squeezing in the friendly in Guatemala City after two punishing World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Ecuador, Alejandro Sabella took advantage to rotate his fatigued squad. One return to the first-team was captain Lionel Messi, given a start after appearing off the bench on both occasions in the past week.
The Barcelona star showed no signs of lingering ill-effects from his recent injury troubles, as he immediately took centre stage. With Just over 10 minutes played, the forward struck across the body of Ricardo Jerez, forcing a smart save from the goalkeeper. Just seconds later, however, Jerez had no answer.
Picking the ball up from Ezequiel Lavezzi some 30 metres from goal, Messi released a perfectly-struck effort that gave the keeper no chance, as the ball flew into the top-left corner. Guatemala had tried to match their more illustrious rivals early on, but that opener was a blow from which they never recovered.
There were several close moments for the Albiceleste in a relaxed, exhibition-style first half, before they managed to double the lead towards the end of the opening 45 minutes. Messi this time turned provider with a cross from the right following a short corner move, and new face in the team Augusto Fernandez justified his place which slipped through Jerez's fingers and into the net.
The game was all over as a contest by the break. Elias Vasquez was guilty of a clumsy challenge on Messi which immediately drew a penalty, and 'La Pulga' himself stepped up to send the keeper the wrong way and score his second of the evening, drawing level with Diego Maradona in the process with his 34th goal in Argentina colours.
There was no relenting from the virtuoso No. 10. In the opening minutes of the second half, the Guatemala defence parted in alarming fashion to allow Lavezzi space on the right. The Paris Saint-Germain man took his time and found Messi in the box, who side-footed calmly home to net his hat-trick.
Erik Lamela fired just wide to go close to a debut goal, as the rest of the game turned into little more than a formality for the vastly superior visitors. Messi was withdrawn to a rapturous reception, and the Argentines saw out what remained of the match without further incident to seal an impressive victory with a second-string side.