By Peter Staunton at Old Trafford
Outside the ground, the merchandisers sold half-and-half scarves. Not of the teams taking part but of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It did not matter who else was there. Around Old Trafford there was excitement to see not Argentina and Portugal but the two best players in the world. The crowd were privileged to be in the presence of that great duo even if, ultimately, they failed to impact the game.
It was, in any case, settled very late on by Raphael Guerreiro, scoring his first international goal for Portugal from a Ricardo Quaresma cross, but that was a rare highlight in a game that scarcely rose above pedestrian. Three 1-0 wins in a row for Portugal and Fernando Santos.
Nonetheless, over 40,000 inside Old Trafford would have wished to see Messi’s first real effort go in, despite their heavily pro-Cristiano Ronaldo stance. The match needed something to spark it into life.
The World Cup finalists, to that point, had the ball and the early thrust; Angel Di Maria curled one round the post. Messi then illuminated the night with the half’s best chance. He played a delightful one-two with Lucas Biglia before clipping the inside of Beto’s near post with his right foot. It was not to be for the Argentine skipper.
His great rival fared little better.
Ronaldo feinted and showboated in front of Facundo Roncaglia; Old Trafford lapped it up. Ronaldo had his chance when he sat Biglia on the seat of his pants before lashing over. Messi did similar from a free-kick.
But the thrust went out of the match when the head count was conducted for the second half. Two new captains, Javier Mascherano and Nani, signalled that Messi and Ronaldo would be taking the second half off.
The Mexican Wave predictably followed but those paying attention would have noticed decent shifts being put in by Christian Ansaldi and Nicolas Gaitan on the Argentinian side. Di Maria stung the palms of Beto. Nani played like he had a point to prove at the club from whom he is exiled. Ricardo Quaresma held his characteristic grudge against the world, he would prove decisive with the game’s best cross deep into injury time.
There were boos reserved for Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero given their allegiance to the other side of Manchester but that was all pantomime stuff.
United fans will be pleased that a tackle by Nani on Di Maria was not more damaging and aside from that, there was not a lot to take away.
It was a relative unknown in 20-year-old Guerreiro who rose to meet Quaresma’s cross and steal the victory for the Europeans to at least give the watching crowd a goal.
Two close qualification wins for Portugal in the last month will give Fernando Santos a sense of purpose as he seeks to rebuild confidence in a team that missed their marks so pitifully at the World Cup. The rebuilding process goes on too for Tata Martino ahead of the 2015 Copa America. He won’t have been best pleased with the result but the integration of some new and inexperienced players on the night was positive at least.
With the international year closing, there isn’t much for the fans to say about this one other than they saw Messi and Ronaldo play on the same pitch at the same time.
And they got a scarf.