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SPORTS | 15-06-2023 12:22

Lionel Messi stars as Argentina down Australia 2-0 in Beijing

Argentina dominates ball and dispatches Australia in 2-0 friendly win played before adoring Chinese crowd; Skipper scores opening goal with Pezzella notching second.

Argentina defeated Australia 2-0 in a friendly match in Beijing on Thursday morning, with Chinese fans paying tribute to the captain Lionel Messi, who put on a show and opened the scoring after barely a minute for the world champions.

The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner curled in from the edge of the area after just 81 seconds following slack defending by the Socceroos.

Defender Germán Pezzella sealed the victory in the 68th minute of a match in which the Albiceleste dominated the ball.

In front of a crowd of more than 50,000 adoring fans, Messi nearly notched a rapid second but lashed into the side netting from a tight angle.

Australia weathered the early storm and nearly equalised when attacker Mitchell Duke forced Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez to tip a close-range shot onto the post.

Messi and fellow veteran Ángel di María both drew saves from Australia's keeper Mat Ryan at the start of the second half.

And the world champions eventually made their pressure count when Germán Pezzella headed in a cross to make it 2-0 in the 68th minute.

Manchester City forward Julián Álvarez again stretched Ryan as the Albiceleste saw out victory in the sultry summer heat.

 

Idolised

Messi is idolised in football-mad China, whose underperforming national team and struggling domestic league are chronic sources of disappointment.

Midway through the second half, a young-looking fan wearing an Argentina shirt invaded the pitch and briefly embraced the ex-Barcelona and PSG star before being hauled away by security guards.

Thousands greeted the Argentina captain's every touch with roars of anticipation that built to a crescendo when he put his team into their quick-fire lead.

They had braved afternoon temperatures of nearly 40 degrees Celsius to gather at Beijing's newly renovated Workers' Stadium a full three hours before the 8pm (9am Buenos Aires) kick-off.

Many had donned replica shirts bearing Messi's name, while others wore light-blue-and-white face paint and waved miniature Argentina flags.

"Today the stadium looked like we were playing in Argentina," said coach Lionel Scaloni of the partisan crowd.

He toasted the win in a "difficult game" for his team, adding: "We continued to compete, which is the best thing this team has in its DNA."

Messi did not stop to speak to journalists gathered in the stadium shortly after he left the team dressing room.

The global superstar has kept a low profile in the Chinese capital, save for some commercial engagements in which he confirmed the 2022 World Cup was probably his last.

But the local excitement around the Argentine legend ratcheted up in recent days as the sell-out match drew nearer.

 

Messi mania

Hundreds of fans massed outside the team's luxury hotel and lined heavily guarded streets in the hope of catching a glimpse of their hero.

Messi made waves last week when he revealed he would join MLS side Inter Miami after the end of his two-year deal with Paris Saint-Germain.

Thursday's match was a re-run of the last-16 clash between Argentina and Australia at last winter's World Cup in Qatar.

On that occasion, Messi scored a goal and tormented the Socceroos' defence as the Albiceleste won 2-1.

Argentina went on to win the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.

The national team will continue their tour of Asia with a friendly match against Indonesia next Monday in Jakarta.

 

Argentina 2 Australia 0

Stadium: Workers' Stadium, Beijing
Referee: Ning Ma (China)
Goal: Argentina: Messi (2), Pezzella (68)
Yellow cards: Australia: Atkinson (46)

Line-ups:

Argentina: Emiliano Martínez; Nahuel Molina, Cristian Romero, Nicolás Otamendi (Germán Pezzella (46), Marcos Acuña; Rodrigo De Paul (Guido Rodríguez, 78), Enzo Fernández (Leandro Paredes, 73), Alexis Mac Allister (Julián Álvarez, 58); Lionel Messi, Nicolás González (Alejandro Garnacho, 73), Ángel Di María (Giovani Lo Celso, 58). Coach: Lionel Scaloni.

Australia: Mathew Ryan; Nathaniel Atkinson (Ryan Strain, 72), Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Jordan Bos; Aiden O’Neill (Denis Genreau, 62), Keanu Baccus, Mathew Leckie (Alex Robertson, 72), Riley McGree (Connor Metcalfe, 72); Mitchell Duke (Brandon Borrello, 62), Jamie Maclaren (Ajdin Hrustic, 46). Coach: Graham Arnold. 

 

– TIMES/AFP

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