Lionel Messi dazzles and delights as Argentina polish World Cup preparations against UAE

PSG attacker proves his star quality as the South Americans extend unbeaten run to 36 matches with 5-0 win

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They came, for the most part, to see the little Argentine with dynamite in his boots.

That should not surprise given that, for many, Lionel Messi sits out on his own as the greatest footballer to have graced the game.

On Wednesday night in Abu Dhabi, more than 36,000 packed inside the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium to witness a bona fide superstar at work, Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni playing to the masses by starting his namesake in the friendly against hosts UAE.

Messi, not far removed from his dazzling early season with Paris Saint-Germain and not long from his anticipated final flourish at a World Cup, was front and centre in the capital – much to apparently everyone’s delight.

Even outside the stadium, “Messi 10” Argentina shirts were exchanging hands as if gold dust; inside people packed the seats and chanted and screamed whenever they caught sight of the pocket forward with one of the game’s bulkiest trophy collections.

In the warm-up, when Messi emerged at the tip of his team; when he curled practice shots into the top corner; when his name was called in the line-up over the PA system.

On eight minutes, when the first flash of Messi sent a dangerous low cross skidding across the UAE penalty area. Then, nine minutes later, when the Argentina captain was sent through by Angel Di Maria and unselfishly – that’s part of what makes him great – rolled the ball to Julian Alvarez, who duly placed his shot past Khalid Essa in the UAE goal.

Di Maria-Messi-Alvarez, the initial duo with their 17 major-league titles and five Uefa Champions Leagues – Messi owns four – and the latter whom much is expected of at Manchester City, the reigning English champions. That, remember, despite the World Cup shifting now into full view.

Argentina open their bid for a third global title in Doha in less than a week, where they kick off their campaign against Saudi Arabia.

The current Copa America title-holders are among the favourites for the crown, where a significant slice of people tuning in from around the football world will wish Messi’s global-finals swansong comes complete with World Cup trophy in hand.

On Wednesday’s viewing, in their concluding warm-up before Qatar 2022, Argentina appear in fine fettle. Granted, they were up against a UAE side ranked 67 places below them by Fifa, at No 70, a team in transition as Rodolfo Arruabarrena – the Argentina-born manager – blends experienced heads with youthful enterprise.

Hugely dominant, the visitors were 4-0 up by half-time. After Alvarez set them on their way, Di Maria volleyed beautifully home from Marcos Acuna’s perfectly floated cross, before the Juventus winger jinked through the UAE defence to round Essa and make it three.

Lionel Messi of Argentina and Khalifa Al Hammadi of UAE battle for the ball. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Of course, Messi would not be outdone. Not long before half-time, the record seven-time Ballon d’Or winner exchanged a neat one-two with Di Maria, stepped past Alhasan Saleh and lifted the ball high across Essa and into the corner. Predictably, the place erupted.

It did again when Messi returned, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, for the second half. Saudi lie in wait six days away, but Scaloni did not relent. At least Di Maria was given a breather.

Arruabarrena, meanwhile, replaced UAE captain Ali Mabkhout with Fabio De Lima, and midfielder Ali Salmeen with Majed Rashid.

Suddenly, the home side sprung to life. Harib Abdallah rocked the crossbar from range; seconds later, Abdullah Ramadan tested goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez at full stretch.

Just to remind there was a game to be contested, Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez picked up a yellow card for constantly chipping away at Al Ain’s Caio Canedo.

On the hour, Argentina's fifth goal. Rodrigo De Paul slipped in substitute Joaquin Correa who finished beyond Essa, via a Saleh deflection. At the other end, Canedo blasted over from the angle.

By then, Messi had receded to fleeting sparks of life, flitting in and out of view. As much as Messi can. Sixty-eight minutes in, as Argentina prepared a corner, Messi waved to one section of the stands and it felt another goal had been plundered.

There was time enough for Messi to arch a free-kick just off target. And, too, for UAE substitute Ali Saleh to force a fine save from Martinez on the break and Canedo’s rebound - surely a certain goal - to be blocked gallantly on the line.

Soon, the night was over. Messi had helped Argentina extend their unbeaten streak to 36 matches, having in the process thrilled the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium. At 35, the diminutive dynamo's star-power burns bright still.

Updated: November 17, 2022, 6:02 AM
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