Sublime Messi gives Wembley an evening to cherish as Argentina boss Italy in Finalissima showdown
Cup of Champions: Wembley Stadium
Argentina (2) 3 Martinez 28, Di Maria 45, Dybala 90
Lionel Messi and an impressively slick Argentina laid down a marker for Qatar by rolling over Italy in a clash between continental champions.
An incisive piece of work on the left by the little genius paved the way for the opener from Lautaro Martinez and on the stroke of half time, a sublime finish from Angel Di Maria all but put the game to bed.
Paulo Dybala came off the bench to score a third at the death following another great run from Messi and it was no more than the dominant Argentinians deserved. Their fans turned the west end of the stadium into a mini-Buenos Aires as they lapped it up with their drums and songs.
This is a fixture that does not exactly have a wealth of tradition behind it. It was only the third time this particular contest between national cup winners has been played and it has been a rather half-hearted concoction.
But what a treat to see a happy Messi enjoying himself on the hallowed turf with another typically glittering display full of feints, deft touches and nimble dashes with the ball tied to his feet in reverence. We have seen its like before but it never fails to leave you feeling exhilarated.
One burst into the heart of a retreating defence ended with a low drive that forced Gianluigi Donnarumma into a sharp save and he tested the stopper from distance as well. It was quite a show and worth the entrance fee alone.
There are no guarantees we will ever see him again on these shores. He may have lost some of his joie de vivre since having to give up Barcelona for PSG, but he is still the most breathtaking player you will ever see.
Argentina were beguiling and thrilling. So often they have flattered to deceive when it comes to World Cup finals but the team under Lionel Scaloni are skilful, efficient and inventive on the break and will surely take some stopping.
They could and should have scored more than three times.
It remains to be seen whether we get more of these clashes in future. The only two previous finals of what is officially called the Conmebol-Uefa Cup of Champions, were staged in Paris in 1985, when France defeated Uruguay 2-0 and in 1993, when a Diego Maradona-led Argentina beat Denmark on penalties after a 1-1 draw in Mar del Plata.
If this event is to become a regular entity, the powers that be had best not wait another 29 years to set it up. International football’s equivalent of the Super Cup will have to try harder to become a serious fixture.
The clash between European and South American champions used to be called the Artemio Franchi Cup. Whatever its name, it might easily have been an England v Argentina clash, had Gareth Southgate’s men been better at penalties on the fateful night at Wembley 11 months ago.
That match was of course famously marred by the disgraceful scenes of ticketless hordes storming the stadium and led to a lengthy investigation into the policing of the event. The upshot is England having to face Italy behind closed doors later this month as a punishment for the shambles.
Thankfully, this event was altogether more peaceful. More celebratory. A credit to both sets of fans on a fine spring evening.
But if this was really no more than a glorified friendly, the two nations certainly took it seriously and the chance to take silverware at Wembley was still a carrot.
For Italy, it was a case of returning to the scene of their great triumph over England on penalties in last year’s Euro championship final and an opportunity to make up for the ignominy of missing the cut for the World Cup after a humiliating play-off defeat to North Macedonia.
Argentina, now unbeaten in their past 32 fixtures, will surely be contenders in November’s desert shindig.
This is a clash which will always stir the blood. Two great footballing nations who have clashed many times on the biggest stage of all.
Italy are still haunted by the night Maradona – playing in his home town of Naples – guided Argentina to a semi-final victory on penalties in the semi-finals of Italia 90.
As a personal witness on that memorable night, I can say the raw emotion of defeat hit them hard. It was a haunting loss for a host nation that had felt it was destined to go all the way.
After 18 years and 117 appearances, this was a fitting place for skipper Giorgio Chiellini to bow out. Many moons ago, well in 2007, he played in the new Wembley’s first international test event – a 3-3 draw between England and Italy U23s. Tempus fugit.
All eyes may have been on the genius that is Messi, but there were plenty of other sub-plots and Premier League connections to savour.
Chelsea pair Jorginho and Emerson for the Azzurri, Villa keeper Emiliano Martinez, Tottenham’s Cristian Romero and Man City’s Nicolas Otamendi in La Albiceleste ranks. New Man City signing Julian Alvarez came on late in the piece.
Gio Lo Celso, also once of Spurs and now at Villareal was there, as well as Di Maria, who briefly turned out at Old Trafford before recovering his damaged reputation at PSG.
And then there was Roberto Mancini, of course. Doing his best to salvage something from a bitterly disappointing follow up to last year’s triumph.
On this occasion, a flurry of substitutions, including three at half time, could not spark his side into life. They were never really at the races.
But that lad Messi. Just wow.
Italy: (4-3-3) Donnarumma – Lorenzo, Bonucci, Chiellini (Lazzari h/t), Emerson (Bastoni 77) – Pessina (Spinazzola 62), Jorginho, Barella – Bernadeschi (Locatelli h/t), Bellotti (Scamacca h/t), Raspadori.
Argentina: (4-1-2-3) Martinez – Romero (Pezzella 81), Molina, Otamendi, Tagliafico – Rodriguez – Lo Celso (Dybala 90), De Paul (Palacios 76) – Messi, Martinez (Alvarez 85), Di Maria (Gonzalez 90)