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Argentina’s Lionel Messi Mesmerises Upton Park In Croatia Friendly

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THIS was quite fun which, for a friendly, is meaning enough. It would probably be stretching things to say that ever since Lionel Messi was a little boy, back before he himself was stretched by all that growth treatment, he dreamed of scoring a penalty in a friendly at a half-empty Upton Park but he did it on Wednesday night all the same and it turned out to be the winning goal in an evening of diverting levity. The paying public seemed pleased with the spectacle put on by Argentina and Croatia and you cannot say fairer than that.

Even before kick-off there were signs that this was going to be an uplifting show. The pre-match formalities were enlivened by a welcome, if inadvertent Spinal Tap tribute – an amusingly tiny Argentina flag being held by sheepish ball boys alongside Croatia’s normal-size one – and there were echoes of Beatlemania when the teams were read out, with the mention of Messi eliciting near-delirious squeals of glee from the majority of the giddy crowd.

Other than a small enclave of fans in red-and-white chequered clobber, most of the spectators seemed to be supporting, or least ogling, Argentina’s superstars. But the worship did not stimulate the performers early on, as Argentina trundled about like a team ordered to play an insignificant match in a faraway land for easy lucre.

Croatia, meanwhile, had an eye on Sunday’s European Champions qualifier in Italy and so did not even bring their biggest names, with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Dejan Lovren among those left at home. But their reserves looked eager to show their worth as they shared the stage with some of the glitziest characters in their sport.

Croatia took the lead in the 11th minute after a wonderful move that culminated with Mateo Kovacic feeding Anas Sharbini, who cracked an immaculate low shot past the goalkeeper from 18 yards.

With Messi hitherto peripheral, it looked as if the man who is arguably the world’s greatest player was about to be upstaged by Sharbini, who is definitely the world’s greatest Croatian player of Palestinian heritage.

The goal seemed to prick Argentina’s pride and, even though the South American defence looked decidedly fragile, with Sunderland’s Santiago Vergini partnering Tottenham’s Federico Fazio, their wholly glamorous attacking trinity of Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ángel di María began to bubble.

Several times Messi skittered past opponents into the penalty area, each time choosing to pass at the end of his run, though the only occasion in the first half that such an incursion looked like yielding a goal was when he interspersed his dribble with a one-two with Cristian Ansaldi before firing into the side-netting. Agüero, meanwhile, brought two decent saves from the Croatia goalkeeper, Lovre Kalinic, including one from a ferocious 25-yard shot, but the Manchester City striker was also guilty of a couple of a sloppy misses – most annoyingly, as far as the crowd seemed to be concerned, in the 27th minute, when he failed to apply the topping to a delicious Messi run, placing the ball wide from right in front of the goal.

Next week Messi is expected to play a leading role in a bigger deal – Argentina’s duel with Portugal at Old Trafford is being billed as a Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo showdown to determine, once and for all, who plays better in friendlies – so one of the highlights of this contest was supposed to be the reappearance of Carlos Tevez at the home of West Ham, ‘El Apache’ having famously spearheaded the club’s fight against relegation in 2007.

Tevez began on the bench but brought a mighty roar when he began warming up early in the second half. Moments later Ansaldi raised a cheer, too, as he rocketed a shot into the top corner of the Croatian net from 25 yards with the aid of a deflection.

Croatia continued to offer plenty to admire. Their whole team was sure-footed and quick-witted, with Kovacic and Milan Badeli looking especially inventive. But then Messi put a stop to the undercarders’ pesky meddling. He diced their defence with a cutting through-ball to Agüero, who was taken down by Kalinic. Messi sent the penalty into the back of the net in front of a moderately populated Bobby Moore Stand.

In the 62nd minute Upton Park went all Woodstock as mass love broke out. The stadium announcer gave the signal for an outpouring of affection by introducing the first substitute of the match thus: “Will you please welcome Argentina and West Ham legend, CARLOS TEVEZ.” The flock, though shivering on a chilly East London night, responded with mass adulation and perhaps a few swoons. Alas, Tevez missed the chance to bring them to climax, shooting wide when sent clear on goal.

For every hero there must be a villain: so enter Érik Lamela, the Tottenham forward’s introduction giving locals an opportunity to boo playfully. Messi, who played the full 90 minutes, nearly provided the last laugh but, after a lovely Argentina move, shot against the post from 10 yards. – The Guardian

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