Ronaldo and Lionel Messi face off in Portugal's 1-0 win over Argentina
MANCHESTER, England -- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo faced off at Old Trafford, a friendly in which Raphael Guerreiro gave Portugal the 1-0 win over Argentina at the death. Here are three points from the match.
1. Messi and Ronaldo draw a rare blank
They are forever together, much as it may irritate both. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, men who have taken their games to a greater height because of competition from the other, players whose trophy cabinets would bulge still further and whose place in history would be still greater but for each other's exploits.
They entered Old Trafford together, two captains who exchanged cursory handshakes with minimal eye contact. They exited together, too, both replaced at halftime in a move that scarcely seemed coincidental. They tend to be goal-a-game men but, for once, neither scored, albeit when confined to 45 minutes apiece.
It was a draw when they were on the field. If Messi was the more prominent, it was probably a reflection of their respective teammates. Argentina possess more world-class players than Portugal. Indeed, both Messi and Ronaldo had struck in their previous international meeting, but the South Americans won 2-1. This time the Barcelona man came closer to scoring, exchanging passes with Lucas Biglia and, from an acute angle, clipping the post.
He directed a free kick over the bar, just as a twisting, turning Ronaldo had got too much elevation on his shot at the other end. The Portuguese is the more ostentatious talent, supplying flicks and tricks, even if one backheel, popular as it was with the fans, proved in vain. It released Jose Bosingwa, but the right-back's cross was hopeless.
While neither did enough to persuade any floating voters as they cast their ballots in the Ballon d'Or, which the men who have dominated an era have shared in the past six years, Ronaldo was the crowd-pleaser. He got the biggest ovation at a ground he graced for six years. Messi was met with boos, pantomime villain style. This was the second, and perhaps final, time they have met at Old Trafford. Ronaldo emerged triumphant on the first occasion, albeit courtesy of Paul Scholes, who scored the decider in the 2008 Champions League semifinal between Manchester United and Barcelona. Messi has some extraordinary achievements to his name, but a draw, let alone a win, at Old Trafford continues to elude him.
2. Portugal's revival continues
Ultimately, it wasn't about the superstars. There were so many of them that there was even a galactico in the directors' box, in Radamel Falcao, accompanied by super-agent Jorge Mendes and the lesser-spotted United midfielder Anderson.
Yet when United manager Louis van Gaal left after 75 minutes, it was hard to criticize his decision. The game was an anti-climax. It seemed certain to end in stalemate. Instead, two of Portugal's substitutes combined. Ricardo Quaresma crossed and Raphael Guerreiro plunged forward to score a diving header for the winner. This was a wonderful moment for him, on just his second cap, while Quaresma, albeit briefly, offered a reminder of why he was briefly deemed a brighter prospect than Ronaldo.
And while Argentina had looked likelier to score, Beto was not required to make any world-class saves. Portugal continued their improvement under Fernando Santos. He was parachuted in after their wretched start to their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign under Paulo Bento. They have begun cautiously under the former Greece manager and are yet to concede in his reign. A third clean sheet was the most prestigious, a third win the greatest boost to morale yet.
Sometimes friendlies lack a competitive edge. This one didn't. This was a match where the yellow card had to be brandished regularly. After the mistimed tackles, however, came the perfectly judged header and Portugal had a major win.
3. Nani almost harms United
Manchester United's injury problems have been exacerbated in the international break. First Michael Carrick was hurt, then David de Gea and most recently Daley Blind. The curse seemed to continue when Angel Di Maria went down in seeming agony. It seemed even worse for United: this was inflicted by one of their own. Nani, whose wages United are paying while he plays for Sporting Lisbon, had trodden on his foot with a late challenge. It looked the revenge of the reject, a rare moment in recent years when Nani exerted a destructive impact at Old Trafford.
He was rendered surplus to requirements when United embarked on a glamorous upgrade on the flanks in the summer. Thankfully for the watching Van Gaal, his biggest buy got to his feet, albeit gingerly. In a rare piece of good news for United, Di Maria then continued and returned to full pace.
Argentina manager Tata Martino had suggested Di Maria's recent dip in form was only to be expected as he adjusts to new teammates and a different league. In the more familiar surroundings of the Argentina team, the 59.7 million pound Di Maria was slightly brighter, if not exactly justifying his price tag. His time at United began with a flurry of goals and there was almost another. Messi set up Di Maria for a shot that went narrowly wide. There were a couple of teasing crosses. A whipped shot was saved by Beto. It proved his final contribution as, after 61 minutes, Di Maria departed.
Nani, who has been revitalised on his return to Lisbon, has proved a regular scorer for Sporting, but produced a performance that was sadly familiar for United. He flattered to deceive. Rather than Ronaldo, he was on free kick duty, perhaps because the captain felt even he could not score from such distances and angles. Nani is only on loan at Sporting and has a further three years on his United contract. It remains to be seen if this is final appearance at Old Trafford or if, Marouane Fellaini-style, he can revive his career at the club.