LONDON: Lionel Messi stole the show as Copa America holders Argentina powered to a 3-0 win against European champions Italy in the Finalissima at Wembley on Wednesday.
Inspired by the peerless Messi, Argentina raced into a two-goal lead in the first half of the prestigious friendly thanks to strikes from Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria.
Paulo Dybala capped Argentina’s rout, but after a disappointing season with Paris Saint-Germain by his sky-high standards, it was the sight of Messi back to his imperious best that took the spotlight.
The 34-year-old’s eye-catching display featured two assists and was worthy of his rare appearance at one of football’s great cathedrals.
It was another memorable moment for Argentina, who have qualified for this year’s World Cup as they extend the golden afterglow from the victory over Brazil that ended their 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021.
Argentina were already established as one of the leading contenders to win the World Cup and defeating Italy was another statement of intent from La Albiceleste, who are now unbeaten in 32 matches.
If Messi can play at this level in Qatar, Lionel Scaloni’s side will be a force to be reckoned with as they chase a first World Cup title since 1986.
For Italy, it was a disappointing return to Wembley 11 months after they beat England on penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
Roberto Mancini’s team have gone into a steep decline since that memorable triumph.
They failed to qualify for the World Cup after suffering a humiliating loss to North Macedonia in their play-off semifinal.
Mancini admitted the Finalissima represented the “end of a cycle” for his European champions.
After the World Cup failure, Mancini is transitioning to a younger generation, with the forthcoming Nations League matches against Germany, England and Hungary his real focus.
Mancini’s overhaul effectively started at half-time when Italy said farewell to 117-cap skipper Giorgio Chiellini, who was substituted in his final game before international retirement.
This was only the third Finalissima contest between the respective champions of Europe and South America and the first since Diego Maradona’s Argentina beat Denmark in 1993.
Fittingly, Messi — the heir to the legendary Maradona — used the occasion to remind the world of his astonishing talents.
The 80,000 sell-out crowd created a colorful backdrop for Messi’s mastery, with Argentina’s raucous fans turning the north London suburb of Brent into Buenos Aires for one ear-splitting evening.
Every touch from Messi lifted the decibel levels and moments after his shot was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma, the forward played a key role as Argentina took the lead in the 28th minute.
Messi worked his magic on the touchline, showing tremendous strength to hold off Giovanni Di Lorenzo before unfurling a precise low cross to Martinez, who applied the finishing touch from close-range.
Italy argued that the goal should have been disallowed for a foul in the build-up, but their protests were in vain.
With tempers still running high, Leonardo Bonucci was booked after leaving Messi writhing in pain with a flailing arm that caught him in the face.
Di Maria exacted revenge on Messi’s behalf in first half stoppage-time.
Martinez drove forward with bullish tenacity and slipped a perfectly weighted pass to Di Maria, with the PSG forward producing a finish to match the approach play as he clipped a cool finish over Donnarumma.
Di Maria almost struck again on the hour, but his curler was brilliantly tipped over by Donnarumma as it fizzed toward the far corner.
Messi robbed Jorginho and embarked on a mesmerising run that finished with a save from Donnarumma.
Messi’s name echoed around the stands as Argentina’s fans paid tribute to their idol’s latest masterpiece.
Dybala’s clinical strike in stoppage-time came via a deft Messi pass as the maestro provided one final flourish.