Argentina struggle early without Lionel Messi, improve late to beat Italy
MANCHESTER, England -- Three points from the Etihad Stadium on Argentina's 2-0 win over Italy in an international friendly.
1. Argentina, Italy headed for opposite summers
Argentina have realistic hopes of winning the World Cup, Italy are trying to rebuild after a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign but it's difficult to see if either will take too much from a mostly dismal friendly at the Etihad Stadium.
Substitute Ever Banega and Manuel Lanzini lit up the game with two excellent strikes in the final 15 minutes but it was too often a game played at training ground pace.
It had the potential to be a rare, meaningful friendly between two traditional superpowers of international football but ultimately, it didn't quite live up to the billing.
Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli had said he wanted to use the friendly -- and a second against Spain on Tuesday -- as an opportunity to strike fear into their rivals ahead of Russia 2018. His opposite number Luigi Di Biagio wanted to rebuild confidence after a humiliating World Cup qualifying campaign but neither could have taken too much from a match short on quality and intensity.
Both sides were crammed with Juventus and Napoli players locked in a thrilling Serie A title race, and that could go some way to offering a reason why neither side were too bothered on the night. Some of the enthusiasm seemed to be sucked out of the game even before a ball was kicked with the decision to rest Lionel Messi as a precaution because of an adductor strain.
Although Messi was named among the substitutes, he took a seat in the stands with Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, who was also ruled out with a slight knee problem. Sampaoli decided to start with an attacking trio of Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Manuel Lanzini and they were the most threatening of the two sides.
Paris Saint-Germain winger Di Maria was the liveliest, forcing Gianluigi Buffon into a smart save inside four minutes and setting up the best opportunity on the stroke of half-time. His clever pass inside to Nicolas Tagliafico set up Higuain but Buffon was out quickly to deny his Juventus teammate.
The Italians offered little threat at the other end although Lorenzo Insigne wasted a glorious chance just after the restart by slicing a shot inches wide with just Willy Caballero to beat.
Banega finally made the breakthrough when he danced through two challenges and hit a neat low shot into the bottom corner that left Buffon no chance. And Lanzini added a late second when he smashed a shot into the top corner after a quick Argentina break.
2. Messi missed
Sampaoli claimed Messi can "carry the team on his shoulders" at this year's World Cup in Russia, so this was a chance to see what would happen if he was missing.
Messi's absence was felt by the crowd who chanted his name throughout the second half but it's clear the team also missed a spark without him.
It also made it all the more curious and disappointing that Sampaoli had decided to leave out in-form Serie A stars Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi when he selected his squad.
Di Maria was the liveliest of the starting front three, attacking Tagliafico with pace and skill at every opportunity and embarrassing the left-back with one lovely drag back in the first half. The former Manchester United winger also drilled in a couple of low crosses that Higuain wasn't alert to.
On the other side, West Ham Lanzini's looped one close-range header over the bar but had little impact until he finally grabbed a goal when Argentina overloaded Italy on the break.
Argentina did at least look strong at the back with Caballero impressing on his international debut in goal and Nicolas Otamendi continuing his impressive form at the Etihad Stadium.
But if Messi was seen as the go-to guy before the game, this match may have underlined his importance to their World Cup hopes even more.
3. Big Italian job
Italy will be missed at the World Cup and caretaker manager Di Biagio took charge for the first time as he aims to rebuild Italy after the Russia 2018 qualifiers ended in disaster with the Azzurri missing their first World Cup since 1958.
It was perhaps surprising that there was that so little change from the side that fell to Sweden in a play-off. Of the 11 starters at the Etihad, only three weren't involved in that game, with only 20-year-old Federico Chiesa making his debut.
They paid for a lack of goal threat against Sweden when they were held to a goalless draw at the San Siro and again they were short of offering any real threat.
Among the starters was Gianluigi Buffon, who at 40 and with 175 caps, was recalled from international retirement with highly-rated 19-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma left on the bench.
The Juventus shot-stopper is still one of the best keepers in the business and made some half decent saves. But even Italian pundits have called for some fresh blood in the squad, with Buffon having made his professional debut two years before Chiesa was born, seen as one that should make way.
In front of him, Leonardo Bonucci struggled but there was at least encouraging signs from Jorginho and Marco Parolo in the centre of midfield.
Italy need to rebuild but they failed to impress here and also didn't do much in terms of trying new faces.
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.