Lionel Messi capped a night of unbridled joy with the 800th goal of his career as world champion Argentina celebrated its homecoming with a 2-0 friendly victory over stubborn Panama in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
The 35-year-old seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s stunning free-kick in the dying minutes came after 21-year-old MLS sensation Thiago Almada gave a glimpse of what the future holds with his first goal for the national team in only his third appearance.
It was an emotional night as fireworks crackled overhead before kick-off at the impressive Monumental stadium where the 83,000 lucky fans that managed to get tickets among the more than 1.5 million people who tried, created an atmosphere that produced goosebumps.
Messi, coach Lionel Scaloni and numerous players came onto the pitch with their children and several seemed on the brink of tears as fans in unison sung Argentina’s World Cup anthem.
It was clear that this was more a celebration than a football match but Panama clearly had not read the script.
Despite fielding a weakened side, it was organized and disciplined and managed to frustrate the new world champions for 78 minutes before their defenses were finally breached.
Argentina, which started the game playing champagne football, created relatively little given their 73 percent possession in the first period.
Messi struck the woodwork with a freekick while Enzo Fernandez brought a diving one-handed save out of goalkeeper Jose Carlos Guerra with a shot from distance.
Scaloni had picked the same starting XI that faced France in the World Cup final in December -- when Argentina triumphed 4-2 on penalties after a sensational 3-3 draw -- but after a goalless first half he made three changes.
In the second period, Argentina knuckled down to trying to win a football match but Guerra was twice equal to Messi free-kicks and also saved a low curling effort from veteran Angel Di Maria.
As the minutes ticked by, the tension rose with Argentina acutely aware that their party risked falling flat if they did not win.
But, eventually their main man came to the fore and ensured Panama would not be party poopers.
Messi had a hand in the opening goal, crashing another free-kick off the woodwork, with Almada, a second half substitute, following up to slot home.
The stadium erupted and the tension drained from Argentina’s players, by now mostly substitutes.
With a minute to go, Messi was given yet another free-kick within shooting range -- his fifth of the match -- and this time he curled it into the top corner to seal the dream scenario for his delirious fans.
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