They came to see their king and he did not disappoint. Three weeks before his 35th birthday but still as influential as ever, Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to victory over Italy in a “Finalissima” at Wembley that certainly lived up to all the hype.
Billed as a showdown between the champions of Europe and South American and being played for the first time since 1993, there only ever looked like being one winner on Giorgio Chiellini’s final international appearance as Lionel Scaloni’s side stretched their unbeaten run to 32 matches. A former defender, Scaloni spent half a season on loan at West Ham in 2006 under the management of Alan Pardew and, with Messi pulling the strings from a deeper position, he has clearly assembled a side that should be considered genuine contenders for the World Cup later this year.
It has been nearly 30 years since Argentina beat Denmark on penalties to lift what was then known as the Artemio Franchi Cup after a former Uefa president. France won the first edition in 1985, with the match having been revived as “part of the expansion of the cooperation between Uefa and Conmebol” signed in February 2020 between the two governing bodies as a direct challenge to Fifa’s growing hegemony. Yet while South American teams are also expected to feature in a revamped Nations League after 2024, this was an opportunity for Italy to at least partially make up for their disappointing failure to qualify for the World Cup after losing to North Macedonia in a playoff.
There were no such issues for Argentina, who sailed through qualification for Qatar unbeaten after ending a 28-year wait to be crowned South American champions. Messi was given a thunderous reception when he emerged for the pre-match warm-up and pretty much every time he went near the ball after that. Tickets for this game sold out in less than a week and there was a carnival atmosphere as the 37-year-old Chiellini belted out the Italian national anthem with his usual gusto for the last time before kick-off.
Back at the site of his side’s triumph against England last summer, Roberto Mancini was immaculately dressed as ever in a sharp grey suit as he watched Ángel Di María try his luck from inside his own half after just 45 seconds, much to Messi’s annoyance. The Italy coach has vowed to rebuild the Azzurri after missing out on their second successive World Cup but there were several familiar faces in his starting lineup here, not least Chiellini and his erstwhile defensive partner Leonardo Bonucci. Having seemed to negotiate a rapid start from their opponents, Italy began to create opportunities but were undone by a piece of Messi magic at the other end.
A sumptuous turn left the despairing Giovanni Di Lorenzo trailing in his wake before a simple ball across the face of goal was tapped in by Lautaro Martínez at the far post. Gianluigi Donnarumma could do nothing about Argentina’s second on the stroke of half-time either as Di María finished off a quick breakaway with Martínez to leave Italy with a mountain to climb.
Chiellini’s race was over at the break as Mancini made three substitutions in an effort to stem the tide. Donnarumma did his best to almost gift Argentina a third goal when he took his eye off a back pass on the hour mark but just managed to recover in time.
With his side becoming increasingly overrun, the Italy goalkeeper kept the score down with excellent saves from Di María and Messi on more than one occasion, while Giovani Lo Celso should have made the result even more emphatic from a tight angle. The substitute Paulo Dybala finally did in injury-time after yet another lung-bursting run from you know who.