December 1, 2023

Lionel Messi came off the bench early in the second half of Argentina‘s 1-0 win over Paraguay in World Cup qualifying in Buenos Aires on Thursday night.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni left Messi, who is recovering from a leg injury, out of his starting XI for its third CONMEBOL qualifier thus far, starting Porto winger Nico Gonzalez, Manchester City‘s Julián Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez of Inter Milan at the top of his formation.

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Nicolas Otamendi opened the scoring early in the game with a nice volley to give a dominant Argentina the lead at halftime, and Messi began to warm up shortly after the break to the delight of the home crowd at Monumental.

Messi looked lively during his 40-plus minutes on the field, directing traffic and helping Argentina pin Paraguay back while creating numerous chances for his teammates. Messi hit the post with a free kick in second-half stoppage time, but the hosts were unable to extend the lead after he came into the game.

“I’m happy to be playing again … It is always difficult to enter from the bench and even more so in such a tight game,” Messi said. “The important thing is that we won, and we played well, especially in the first half.

“I come here after playing only a few minutes for my club [Inter Miami CF]. We talked and planned to see how I feel during the week. The idea is to add more training sessions in the following days ahead of our next game.”

In the 85th minute, Paraguay forward Antonio Sanabria appeared to spit at Messi after a discussion and when the Argentina star had his back turned.

“Truthfully, I didn’t see it. My teammates told me in the locker room that he spat at me,” Messi said about the incident. “I don’t know who this boy is and I don’t want to make a big thing out of it.”

The defending World Cup champions have nine points from three matches and will look to keep the winning streak alive with an away match against Peru on Oct. 17.

“We will talk in the next days to determine his condition,” Scaloni said about Messi. “He has two more training sessions to continue adding minutes on the pitch. At this point, I’m not ruling out any option. He could play from the start, as a substitute or not playing at all.

“But today I think it was risky for him to get a lot of playing time. We talked about it and we agree on that and I think it was prudent.”

The victory over Paraguay continues an impressive streak for Argentina, which has just one loss in its past 50 games, outscoring opponents 108-25 and going 36-13-1 since losing to Brazil in the 2019 Copa America semifinals.

“Obviously it is always easier to have [Messi in the starting lineup],” said Liverpool midfielder Alexis Mac Allister. “It was nice to see him coming back after a while and be with us for some minutes. We are happy for him.

“We played well, but we feel we could have scored more goals tonight, especially in the first half. Anyway, happy with the result and how we played.”

Scaloni’s Argentina was 2-0 in CONMEBOL qualifying coming into the match, having beaten Ecuador 1-0 and Bolívia 3-0 in September, but Messi did not play against Bolivia after picking up a leg injury in the first match.

That injury forced Messi to miss a chunk of games for Inter Miami as the team missed the MLS Cup playoffs after a 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati on Saturday.

The Argentine superstar’s participation in Thursday’s qualifier had been in doubt in the run-up to the game, with Scaloni saying Wednesday the decision to play Messi would be left entirely up to the player.

Messi led Miami to the club’s first trophy with a win in the inaugural Leagues Cup competition between MLS and Liga MX sides in August, but his team came up short in the final of the U.S. Open Cup — a game Messi missed due to his injury — and also fell short of reaching the MLS postseason down the stretch.

The World Cup winner has been nothing short of amazing since joining Miami in July, scoring 11 goals in 13 matches he played for the team. Miami went 8-1-4 when he played, but only 1-3-2 in the six matches he missed through injury.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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