A late Sergio Aguero header was enough to hand Argentina a 1-0 win in a friendly match at the grand opening of the newly-refurbished Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Saturday.
The game fixed the eyes of the watching footballing world on Russia, not least because of the arrival of Lionel Messi. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner led his side to Luzhniki, the new epicentre of Russian sport, to face a Russia side keen on match practice.
Floods of fans braved the typically steely-grey Moscow skies and rain to catch a glimpse of who many consider to be the world’s greatest ever footballer at Luzhniki, which will also be the venue for the World Cup Russia 2018 opening match and final.
On first impressions fromt he inside, the new Luzhniki Stadium forms a cauldron of atmosphere, created by expectant and optimistic fans ready to welcome the world’s footballing elite.
This time the welcome took shape in ‘Together We Are A Team, Together We Are A Family’ banners on opposite sides of the ground. When the teams lined up on the pitch they were greeted with rapturous cheers and a further banner, smartly adorned by Russian postage stamps of national heroes such as Yuri Gagarin under the words ‘National Treasures’.
A group of five tenors belted out the respective national anthems after a confusing few minutes of silence, during which only the flags on the pitch would give any sign of a football match being played. The pre-match presentations, for such an important event, left a lot to be desired.
When the game got underway, with both sides donning their new retro-style adidas kits launched in the week prior – Russia laid claim to an early penalty when Konstantin Rausch went down in the Argentina area after playing a one-two pass with Fedor Smolov, although nothing was given.
The real first chance of the game came in the shape of an Angel Di Maria shot which veteran stopper Igor Akinfeev managed to prod away with an outstretched left leg. Russia defender Georgi Dzhikiya then put it out for a corner ahead of Sergio Aguero as the ball span to the far post.
Akinfeev, making his 102nd appearance for his country, was the equal to an Aguero shot moments later as the game began to hot up. Lionel Messi’s first major run was cheered wildly by the watching fans, but ultimately came to nothing.
Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer was in action again when Di Maria sprayed a beautiful cross-field pass to Aguero on the right who broke to play in Eduardo Salvio who the played in Messi, but the Argentine icon could only fluffs at the cross and the ball was deflected wide.
Russia’s 3-4-3 formation worked well to break the Argentine counterparts down in midfield, but when they did win the ball, they were guilty of being wasteful in possession, meaning much of the first-half action was confined to half-chances.
Dmitry Poloz wasted a chance from a free kick on the left hand side of the Argentina box, his shot from Rausch’s backheel flew far wide of Sergio Romero’s post and Both sides went into the break level largely courtesy of Akinfeev’s lightning reactions to turn Sergio Aguero’s swivelled volley round the post on the stroke of half-time.
A game which had faltered in the first half showed little sign of improving in the second 45, although Russia weren’t without their brighter spots. Denis Glushakov spurned two chances in quick succession; the first he created from nearly nothing, steadying himself to shoot from 30 yards, but ultimately firing wide.
Moments later the ball was looped into the Argentina area and bobbled from Glushakov, to Smolov, then back to Glushakov who shot goal wards but Romero was on hand to beat the ball away. Soon after, substitute Aleksei Miranchuk fed Igor Smolnikov, who crossed to Smolov in front of an open net but the high ball simply sailed agonisingly over the forward’s head.
When all Argentina offered in response was a Javier Otamendi overhead kick from a corner which was tipped over by Akinfeev, it appeared Russia would hold on for the draw. Approaching the final minutes of the game.
That was until the 86th minute when a whimsical ball was threaded through to Cristian Pavon on the right hand side. who played a low ball to Aguero. The Manchester City man looked sure to score but had his effort blocked by Dzhikiya. The rebound fortuitously ricocheted towards Aguero and, with Akinfeev already committed, the striker headed the ball home to hand Argentina a late lead.
Questions were raised as to whether Pavon had strayed offside before receiving the pass, but the goal stood in the absence of any Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology, which had made its debut at the Confederations Cup in Russia in the summer. Replays suggested he was in fact offside.
Upon the final whistle, the crowd reacted neither with dismay or disappointment. Although Russia’s display had been fairly uninspiring, a slim victory against one of the world’s greatest teams, with perhaps the world’s best player in their ranks, may not have been that bad.
After the game, Messi put the fact his team weren’t able to record a resounding victory down to the sturdy spirit of the Russians.
“We hoped and planned to play a lot better in attack,” Messi said.
“But this isn’t the first time that we have needed to beat an opponent with more self-belief. That is why it turned out that we struggled and didn’t score until the last minutes. We will go away and work on these things ourselves.”
There may be something of a moral victory in narrowly losing to Argentina at home. Although Russia will have to do a lot better in their remaining friendlies if they are to perform how they hope to at their home World Cup. Next up is a friendly against Spain in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
by Danny Armstrong for RT Sport