Tuesday 18 December 2018

Fans feel short-changed at Etihad as Messi fails to show

Argentina’s Lucas Biglia battles with Italy’s midfielder Marco Verratti at the Etihad Stadium last night. Photo: Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty Images
Argentina’s Lucas Biglia battles with Italy’s midfielder Marco Verratti at the Etihad Stadium last night. Photo: Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty Images

James Ducker

It was frustrating enough for the thousands who had come to the Etihad Stadium last night in anticipation of watching Lionel Messi in action to see the Argentina maestro stuck in a seat in the stands.

That the largely turgid 2-0 victory for Argentina over Italy that unfolded in his absence was crying out for a sprinkling of his stardust will only have deepened the acute disappointment felt by many inside the ground.

Argentina did at least come alive in the closing stages with goals from Ever Banega, enjoying his return to the city only 10 days after the Sevilla midfielder helped dump Manchester United out of the Champions League, and West Ham's Manuel Lanzini, but plenty had dozed off by then.

England should not have too much to fear from Italy when the Azzurri visit Wembley on Tuesday.

A smattering of boos greeted the final whistle and it hardly came as a surprise. There had twice been sustained chants of "Messi, Messi, Messi" during the second half, an airing more of frustration than any great expectation of the Barcelona forward vacating his seat next to Sergio Aguero in a box, derobing and treating those present to the cameo they craved.

Aguero, the local hero, was never going to play a part here, the Manchester City striker still recovering from a knee injury that should also keep him out of Tuesday's game against Spain, but Messi's absence was unexpected and most unwelcome.

Football may be a team game but the clamour to see arguably the greatest player in history in the flesh in these parts was understandably huge and, for once, he was readily accessible.

Getting tickets for a Barcelona game, even if you could swallow the cost of a trip there, is easier said than done. Similarly, Champions League matches between Barcelona and the likes of City and United are not exactly frequent occurrences and, when they do come around, tickets are out of the reach of many.

So here was a rare chance for kids and parents in their thousands to come and watch Messi live and the promoters, OnSide, were not oblivious to that as they put the Barcelona maestro front stage and centre of their marketing campaign.

The sense of anticipation will only have intensified when footage appeared of Messi beating half a dozen players in training at City's CFA base this week before scoring. No wonder so many felt short-changed then when news filtered through that Messi was not only not in the starting XI but not on the substitutes' bench either, despite his presence on the team sheet.

It was not as if, in Messi's absence, the remaining cast members seemed desperate to put on a show. The Etihad was only half full and the game half baked, and while no one should read much into such a friendly, it was not too hard to see why Argentina, despite their many attacking talents, made such heavy going of World Cup qualification and Italy failed to reach Russia altogether.

Gianluigi Buffon was called upon to make three good saves, notably from a thumping header by Nicolas Otamendi, the City and Argentina centre-half, and later from Gonzalo Higuain.

If anything encapsulated the low-key mood and lack of edge, here it was the sight of Argentina forward Angel Di Maria and Italy midfielder Marco Verratti - team-mates at Paris Saint-Germain - swapping shirts at half-time.

A tepid first hour was summed up when Lorenzo Insigne shanked a glorious chance wide from close range from Ciro Immobile's pass.

The first goal eventually arrived 15 minutes from time when Banega exchanged a neat one-two with Diego Perotti after a lovely shuffle of the feet that bamboozled two Italy players before firing low into the corner.

Lanzini then claimed his first goal for Argentina when he rifled the ball into the top corner. It was not enough to suppress the longing for Messi, though.

Elsewhere, a string of second-half goals helped Brazil, who were without Neymar, to an emphatic 3-0 friendly victory over Russia at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium. Miranda broke the deadlock tapping in the 53rd minute. Philippe Coutinho doubled Brazil's lead from the penalty spot less than 10 minutes later after Aleksandr Golovkin brought down Paulinho. Paulinho then added another in the 66th minute heading a Willian cross into the back of the net.

Thomas Muller's thunderous equaliser ensured the heavyweight friendly between Germany and Spain finished 1-1 in Dusseldorf following Rodrigo's strike.

Alex McLeish began his second tenure as Scotland boss with a 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica at Hampden Park. His side fell behind in the 14th minute when Marco Urena struck.

Meanwhile, Ryan Giggs revealed that the advice of England rugby head coach Eddie Jones and Chelsea's Antonio Conte helped him start his tenure as Wales manager with a bang. Gareth Bale's historic hat-trick moved him past Ian Rush and into the lead as Wales' record goalscorer as Giggs's first game in charge ended with a 6-0 thrashing of China. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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