Manchester (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Ever Banega ensured Argentina weren’t derailed by Lionel Messi’s absence as the World Cup contenders clinched a 2-0 win over Italy in Friday’s friendly at the Etihad Stadium.
Messi reportedly suffered an groin strain in training on Thursday, so the Barcelona forward was an unused substitute as Argentina kicked off their preparations for the World Cup in June.
Ahead of a busy end to the domestic season and then the World Cup, five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi wasn’t going to risk aggravating his injury.
Without their talismanic star, Jorge Sampaoli’s side showed they have strength in depth with a solid display capped by late goals from Banega and Manuel Lanzini.
Having edged through to the World Cup thanks to Messi’s treble in a 3-1 win over Ecuador in October, Argentina are focused on peaking in Russia, where they will play Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria in the group stage.
Clearly they need Messi to have any chance of lifting the trophy, but, with Sergio Aguero also sidelined by injury, Sampaoli will be encouraged by the performance of his understudies.
Italy remain in turmoil after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
It was an emotional evening for the Azzurri as they played for the first time since their defender Davide Astori died of a suspected cardiac arrest earlier this month.
Their shirts carried a tribute to the Fiorentina captain, with the words ‘Davide Always With Us’.
But after a minute’s silence for Astori, it was Argentina who took control.
Luigi Di Biagio is in charge of Italy on an interim basis and his first move was to persuade Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to end a brief international retirement.
Buffon, winning his 176th cap, was quickly called into action as Angel Di Maria tested the 40-year-old with a low strike.
– Lack of enthusiasm –
It took another good stop from Buffon to keep out Nicolas Otamendi’s header.
Although Argentina and Italy have won six World Cups between them, there were large swathes of seats left empty as the Manchester public showed a lack of enthusiasm for two teams whose current squads are far from their finest vintage.
The stay-aways weren’t missing much, with chances at a premium until Buffon made an alert save to deny Nicolas Tagliafico.
Buffon saved his best for the final seconds of the first half as he repelled a shot from his Juventus team-mate Gonzalo Higuain before Daniele Rugani cleared the rebound off the line.