SEATTLE (AP) — By the time Lionel Messi checked in at halftime, Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi and the rest of his teammates had Argentina well on its way to the top spot in Group D of the Copa America.
Lamela and Lavezzi scored 2 minutes apart early in the first half, Victor Cuesta scored his first international goal later in the half and Argentina dominated Bolivia 3-0 on Tuesday night to be the only team in the entire tournament to win all three group games.
Messi subbed on at the beginning of the second half for his most extensive game action since Barcelona beat Sevilla 2-0 to win the Copa del Rey on May 22.
In the time since, Messi suffered a back injury, testified in his tax fraud trial in Spain and scored a hat trick off the bench in a 5-0 win over Panama last week.
But the goals came from his teammates as Argentina clinched a matchup with Venezuela in the quarterfinals. And all that dominance came with Messi relaxing on the bench, hearing his name chanted by the crowd throughout the first half as they eagerly anticipated the chance to see the best player of this generation coming off a memorable reserve performance just a few days earlier against Panama.
"People want to see him. People pay all over the world to see him and he has to deal with that," Argentina manager Gerardo Martino said through an interpreter. "Sometimes he has to play and sometimes he has to be on the bench but he has that obligation to follow through for the fans who are paying to be there. He has to live with that."
Argentina is in search of its first major international championship since winning the Copa America in 1993.
"It's time to think about Venezuela," Messi said. "Win that game and advance."
Bolivia last beat Argentina in 2009, but that victory came at nearly 12,000 feet at home in La Paz. At sea level in Seattle, the Bolivians stood no chance.
The closest Messi came to finding the net was a free kick from 30 yards early in the second half that teased the far post but didn't curl enough. Bolivia's Diego Bejarano was Messi's shadow, ignoring anyone else in white with the ball and focusing just on No. 10.
Messi's best moment came in the 77th minute when he was flagged for offside, but continued the play long enough to nutmeg Bolivian goalkeeper Carlos Lampe as he dribbled around the penalty area.
"Regardless of the result, regardless after the first half he knew he was going to play for 45 minutes," Martino said of Messi. "He is growing compared to the last game. The last game he played 30, today 45 and he is feeling more confident. That is what we were going to do regardless."
Bolivia played with a defensive posture all night, but it held for all of 13 minutes until Lamela's free kick deflected off the back of Yasmani Duk and left Lampe moving the wrong direction as the shot found the net.
Two minutes later, Gonzalo Higuain headed down a cross that was saved by Lampe but directed right to Lavezzi who pounded the loose ball into the goal.
And Argentina capped its dominant first half when Lavezzi picked up an assist as his cross was redirected by Cuesta's toe for his first international goal.
Bolivia didn't even attempt to play possession, simply clearing balls out of its own end anytime a pass escaped Argentina's feet. Argentina had 81 percent of the possession in the first half and the only time goalkeeper Sergio Ramos was asked to even move was on the few free kicks Bolivia lofted into the penalty box.
Argentina completed 357 passes in the first half; Bolivia completed 38. For the game, the disparity was 757-61.
"I was very happy to see this test," Martino said.