Abu Dhabi: At 6.45pm fans inside the Mohammed Bin Zayed stadium caught their first glimpse of Argentina superstar Lionel Messi as he came out to warm up with the rest of the team. With the stadium only half full ahead of the 7.30pm kick off against the UAE, the Paris-Saint Germain attacker was met with a deafening roar. He applauded all four sides of the stadium and the chants of “Messi! Messi” grew increasingly louder. It was all too much for a young female fan, who raced onto the lush green surface in a desperate bid to get close to the 35-year-old, who has said the 2022 Qatar World Cup would be is last. She didn’t quite make it close enough to the left-footer, regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. Several security guards chased her down but Messi saw the whole incident and sportingly gave the girl a wave. The crowd erupted at the gesture from the former Barcelona legend.
He began warming up with some gentle stretches and then began taking shots at goal. One of them, a 25-yarder which cannoned in off the underside of the crossbar, brought the house down. The atmosphere was simply electric and as kick off approached every seat in 37,000 capacity venue was taken. Messi, has been in the UAE for the past three days training with his teammates in preparation for the Qatar World Cup, which kicks off on November 20. Argentina have been drawn in Group C and will play Saudi Arabia on November 22 in their first match.
Wednesday night’s friendly was the perfect opportunity for coach Lionel Scaloni to give some much-needed minutes to several of his star players ahead of the serious business in Doha. He started with a front three of Angel Di Maria, Julian Alvarez and Messi — who many thought would start on the bench — but he was given a starting role after sitting out of PSG’s league fixture last weekend against Auxerre as he had been suffering from a calf strain.
The team sheets were announced and unsurprisingly the biggest cheer was reserved for Messi, who has said that Brazil, England and Argentina are the favourites to win the coveted trophy. If Argentina and England both top their respective groups, they would not be able to meet until the final. Incredibly, the showpiece event in Doha could be Messi’s 1,000th game and there is a sense of fate surrounding the diminutive Argentine this winter. After the two national anthems the match kicked off and Messi’s first touch was cheered by the entire stadium.
Almost instantly he got the crowd to their feet when he latched on to a cross field pass from Foyth and killed the ball dead with a one sublime touch before drilling in a dangerous low cross into the box that the stretching Alvarez was inches away from turning home the opening goal.
UAE’s centre back Al Hammadi had the unenvious task of man marking Messi and the big No 12 looked nervous and sensibly decided not to get too tight on his man. But this gave Messi a little more room than he expected to play in and with time on the ball he was able to pick out his teammates with pinpoint accuracy. And then midway through the first half he raced clear from the halfway line following a fine through ball from Otamendi and although he just had Eisa between the posts to beat he unselfishly slid the ball across the six-yard box for Alvarez, who tucked in the first and the Argentinian fans went wild.
Too much room
It was a great move and the second almost followed immediately. Messi clipped in a fine ball over the top for Di Maria but he saw his effort blocked by Saleh for a corner kick. But the No 11 wasn’t to be deterred as he found the net with a peach of a strike — a superb first time left foot volley, which smashed the inside of the post and into the back of the net. The ball was chipped up to the far post for the loitering Di Maria and the UAE defence will have been disappointed for leaving him with so much room.
Then a rash tackle on the edge of the box brought Argentina a free kick and Messi put the ball down. The crowd waited with bated breath, but the little number 10’s clipped effort curled harmlessly wide. After some neat build-up play on the left it was Di Maria, who grabbed his second of the night and Argentina’s third as he rounded Eisa and walked the ball into the empty net. Messi then went close with a glancing header but this time Eisa was well positioned and saved smartly but still the away team pressed and then a minute before half time came the moment the fans had been waiting for. Messi got on the ball on the edge of the box and ghosted his way past Maazmi with a lovely shimmy and with his right foot he produced a fantastic finish into the top corner that brought everyone to their feet.
Argentina went in at half time 4-0 up and totally dominated possession with 70 per cent of the ball. They had 12 shots in the first 45 to only 1 from the home team with 6 of those on target. Scaloni would have been delighted with the team’s enterprising play ahead of some serious business next week. It was a brilliant half and with no threat to their 35-match unbeaten run the coach rung the changes for the following 45. Off went MacAllister, Di Maria and Otamendi but to the delight of the fans packed inside the majestic stadium, Messi started the second half but it was the UAE who started brighter.
Bekheet came agonisingly close with a rasping left foot drive fully 30 yards out, which beat Martinez’s desperate dive but fortunately for him the ball thumped the upright. It was just the start the UAE needed and they again gave Argentina a fright as Maazmi used his electric pace down the left flank to get past Montiel but his attempted cross was blocked.
Argentina grabbed their fifth through Correa and as the half wore on, Messi seemed to tire. He was less involved with the teams flowing play but when presented with another dead ball situation midway through the second period he was inches away from adding a sixth. That is the danger the man possesses. He may not have the ball for large periods of the game and just when you think the game has passed him by, he can produce a moment of sheer brilliance. He has been doing that all of his career and although those meandering runs are more sporadic these days, he still retains that killer instinct. With a magic wand of a left foot, he can turn a game in Argentina’s favour.
This was a convincing way for the two-time world champions to round off their 2022 Qatar World Cup preparations. The white and sky blues were dominant from the first whistle with star man Messi once again pulling the strings. He was at the heart of all of their attacks and ably assisted by Di Maria and Alvarez. Behind the three was a robust midfield display from De Paul and Paredes, who didn’t put a foot wrong all night. They broke up the UAE attacks and spread the ball out to the wings with the overlapping Foyth and Acuna. They are now on a 36-game unbeaten run and on this display it will take a monumental effort to stop them and that man, Messi.