In the midst of a half dozen high-profile international friendlies on the day, not to mention the long and storied history of Argentine football, Argentina's 2-0 win over Italy Friday afternoon in Manchester won't stand out. But hinchas of la Selección, also known as anyone in the country (or diaspora) with a pulse that doesn't actively loathe the sport, will take heart from their team's performance.
The two sides, each filled with a mixture of heavyweight international stars and middling fringe players fighting for their place in the last 23 heading to Russia, did little more than spar lightly for most of the match. The second half saw Italy's Lorenzo Insigne missed a golden opportunity to put the Azurri ahead and the chance for the most embarrassing of goals when Argentina's attempt to play out of the back was blocked and the ricochet nearly crept in.
But the real action came in the final 15 minutes with two sublime goals from players who will likely be in the final squad but still needed to show their mettle the midst of fierce competition for a starting spot and overall playing time. With 75 minutes gone, Argentina built up a head of steam with a clean run of crisp passes before the ball fell to Sevilla midfielder Éver Banega at the top of the box, who then coolly slotted it into the bottom right corner, leaving an unsighted Gianluigi Buffon standing helpless in goal. Ten minutes later, in the 85th minute, the Argentine attack broke quickly and West Ham midfielder Manuel Lanzini found himself just inside the box with two Italian defenders standing off him but limiting his line of sight. Unfazed, he whipped a shot into the upper near post, bypassing both defenders and a flailing Buffon.
Though Juventus forward Gonzalo Higuaín did start, several of Argentina's big guns watched on from the bench, namely Sergio Agüero, Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano. Head coach Jorge Sampaoli started with Caballero, Bustos, Otamendi, Fazio, Tagliafico, Biglia, Paredes, Lanzini, Lo Celso, Di María, and Higuaín. Perotti, Banega, Pavón and Mercado entered at various points after the 60th minute. Rojo and Martínez were the highest profile non-superstars who did not feature.
Argentina play Spain in Madrid on Tuesday afternoon in the second round of the weekend's World Cup tune-up international break.