Portugal strike late to win insipid contest

Battle for the Ballon D’Or at Old Trafford a damp squib

Portugal 1 Argentina 0

There was scant sign of the apparent animus between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo before the start of this friendly encounter. Argentina's captain and his Portugal counterpart winked and embraced in the tunnel in a manner that may or may not have been a mere show of public affection.

The match was decided in Portugal’s favour by a late header from the second-half substitute Raphaël Guerreiro though all anyone had really cared about was how Messi and Ronaldo performed.

By the break the lead actors in a game billed as a showdown between the world’s finest two players had left the stage which, given the £60 paid for top priced tickets, was greeted by a smattering of boos from the 41,233 attendance.


Gerardo Martino, the Argentina head coach, was certainly correct when stating during the build-up that there was no way the match would have any effect on who would win this year's Fifa Ballon d'Or.

The 45 minutes played by the winners of the past four awards – Ronaldo is the incumbent – was insipid fare, with Messi brighter than the former United man.

Ronaldo’s continuing status an adored old boy here meant he – and Portugal – were granted the far warmer reception from a crowd that created the kind of jolly atmosphere usually present at pre-season matches.

As Martino left Sergio Agüero on the bench – the Manchester City striker was jeered to his seat – the star attractions for Argentina were Messi and Ángel Di María during an opening half the “home” team dominated.

These two shone whether in combination or individually and though Di María lined up on the left and Messi on the opposing flank these proved nominal positions as each roved across the Old Trafford turf.

Di María has been criticised by Louis van Gaal for dribbling too much in Manchester United colours and an example in the livery of Argentina came when he raced clear towards Beto’s goal only to over-complicate the footwork and the threat fizzled out.

Di María did come closer when Messi darted forward and slipped the ball to him, though the 20-yard shot he unloaded missed to Beto’s right.

By the end of period it was Messi who went closest to scoring, hitting the Portugal goalkeeper's left post after engineering a one-two with Lucas Biglia. Later, the No10 also took a free-kick that flew just over Beto's bar.

Van Gaal was present alongside his assistant, Marcel Bout, and United’s manager must have shuddered when Nani, who he allowed to be loaned to Sporting Lisbon, stamped on Di María’s right foot just before the 20-minute mark. The last thing the Dutchman needs is yet another injury and though the £59.7m British record signing left the pitch he was able to rejoin the fray moments later.

As can be the case when he is on international duty Ronaldo had been quiet – becalmed almost – as the break arrived. There was one flash of magic when he took José Bosingwa’s cross and executed a couple of soft shoe-shuffles but when taking aim the radar was awry.

In the second half Argentina continued to dominate yet this is a relative judgment as any “entertainment” remained tame.

This was one of those nights when a Mexican wave feels inevitable – it came on 70 minutes – and as the end nears players become ever more careful of avoiding injury. With this in mind Di María was taken off while Carlos Tevez, once of Manchester United before moving to City, was booed on as one of the numerous substitutes, though it was all rather sub-pantomime stuff.

Throughout, the so-called super-agent, Jorge Mendes, sat between Radamel Falcao and Anderson, two of his clients and valued members, in varying degrees, of Van Gaal's squad.

As the end neared another of Mendes’s players, Nani, had a brief altercation with Martín Demichelis that threatened to spark into something more serious before normal order was resumed. It summed up the evening.

(Guardian service)