ATLANTA – Lionel Messi ran as fast as he could, looking over his shoulders to track a long pass from his goalkeeper like a wide receiver on a go route. He played the ball off a bounce and fired a shot toward the goalie. Blocked.

Messi scurried to chase down the rebound, and juked out the goalie again with a quick move. But his shot was blocked again – this time by the defender’s head.

All Messi could do was hunch over to catch his breath, before rising again with a smile on his face.

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About 13 minutes later, Messi squared off again against Canada’s standout goalie, Maxime Crépeau — and failed again. His chip shot was tipped and rolled out of bounds.

Messi lay face down on the pitch, and he stayed there to catch his breath and collect his thoughts. He had at least five chances to score, each chance becoming more and more unbearable for the World Cup champion to endure.

Messi eventually broke through, not with a goal, but his assist to Lautaro Martinez in the 88th minute punctuated Argentina’s 2-0 win over Canada in the Copa America 2024 opener on Thursday night in front of 70,564 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I had a few situations to score goals. We could have taken control of the match earlier and been calm,” Messi said after the game. “I’m happy for the victory and to start the tournament with a win.”

Messi was serenaded by Argentine fans happy to see him – whether he was successful or not.

They chanted “Messi! Messi! Messi!” after every miscue. And they cheered each chance he had to alter the match.

Messi made Copa America history Thursday – setting records with his 35th career start in the tournament and in becoming the first player to have an assist in seven different Copa America tournaments.

Messi also finished the match after having his left knee evaluated briefly on the pitch after he went knee-to-knee with a sliding Canadian defender who tripped him up.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game and Canada would be a hard team to go against,” Messi said. “They were physical, especially in the first half. We were able to improve and get better in the second half.”

Messi and Angel Di Maria, the 36-year-old elder statesmen of the Argentine national team, pushed the club’s agenda early with opportunities in the first half that ultimately failed.

Messi missed a shot wide right in the first 10 minutes of the match, and a free kick before the final whistle. Di Maria missed a straightaway run toward the net after a steal and was unable to connect on a bicycle kick after a pass from Messi.

It appeared Canada’s defensive speed caught up to the Argentine greats, but coach Lionel Scaloni openly complained about the slick synthetic turf installed days before the match.

“We knew we were going to play here for seven months, and the turf was placed two days ago,” Scaloni said. “I don’t think the field was well for the players.” He added that each team’s passes had some extra speed on them.

Messi agreed the pitch played a factor in the match, adding the slick pitch conditions combined with Canada’s defense made for difficulties passing the ball like the world champions prefer.

“We always try to do the same, regardless of the state of the pitches. It is our way of playing, and we try to do it,” Messi said. “It cost us a little bit more.”

Julian Alvarez scored three minutes into the second half with an assist by Alexis Mac Allister to take a 1-0 lead.

Messi then took over, with his captivating attempts toward the net, until the final whistle.

Argentina plays its second Copa America match against Chile at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey on Tuesday, one day after Messi’s 37th birthday.

“It’s vital to have patience, so when opportunity comes, we take advantage of it,” Messi said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lionel Messi's breakthrough assist caps Argentina's win vs. Canada in Copa America opener

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