Argentina coach Gerardo Martino backed Lionel Messi’s qualities as a leader after the Barcelona star faced criticism from Diego Maradona this week. After missing Argentina’s opening game against Chile due to a back problem, Messi will play for the first time at the Copa America Centenario when his side takes on Panama in Chicago Friday.

For Messi, the tournament is the latest chance for both him and his country to end their title drought at the international level. The 28-year-old has faced harsh criticism back home for Argentina’s failures in the final of the World Cup and Copa America in the past two years. And Maradona, who led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, contributed to that chorus when claiming that Messi, Argentina’s captain, “doesn’t have the personality to be a leader.”

Martino, though, who also coached Messi at Barcelona, has said that while midfielder Javier Mascherano may be more vocal in the dressing room, five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi leads by example out on the field.

“Mascherano's impact as a leader is more important inside the squad, and Messi's leadership is more important in the pitch,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether Messi will be thrust straight into the starting lineup at Soldier Field. In his absence, Argentina beat Chile 2-1 Monday to gain a measure of revenge for its defeat at their hands in the final of the 2015 Copa America. The man who replaced Messi in the starting lineup, Nicolás Gaitán, acquitted himself well, while Ángel di María  appeared to flourish with the extra responsibility in Messi’s absence, scoring one goal and setting up the other for Ever Banega.

Having already beaten the most dangerous team in the group, there may be temptation to ease Messi into the tournament. But there may also be a particular caution going up against a Panama side that put in some strong challenges in its opening match, picking up five yellow cards. But Panama’s Colombian coach, Hernan Dario Gómez, has insisted that his side will not be singling out Messi for rough treatment.

“Panama is a team of men but has no bad intention,” he said ahead of the match. “I hope the referees are aware of it, because the big teams seem to get more protection, and we are a small team.”

Gómez added that he wouldn’t be changing his strategy based on Messi’s return, conceding that if the forward was at his best, there would be little his side could do to stop him.

But Panama also has reason to be confident. As well as five bookings, Panama also picked up three points  Monday — thanks to two goals from veteran Vancouver Whitecaps striker Blas Pérez — by securing a 2-1 win over Bolivia. In its first Copa America, Panama has a real chance to make the quarterfinals. If the Central American side does so, it may ease some of the bitter disappointment and frustration from its controversial exit at the hands of Mexico in the semifinals of last year’s Gold Cup.

A win for either side would take it through to the quarterfinals if Chile and Bolivia draw their game earlier Friday evening.

Prediction: Panama has improved markedly as a soccer nation in recent years and will be no pushover. Still, Argentina was impressive in its victory over Chile, playing with real intensity and showing strong signs that the team is determined to take home the trophy this time around. Whether or not Messi makes the starting lineup, the Albiceleste will have too much quality for Panama.

Predicted Score: Argentina 3-0 Panama

Kickoff Time: 9:30 p.m. EDT

TV Channel: Fox, UniMás, Univision Deportes

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