The 27th meeting between Portugal winger Ronaldo and Argentina forward Messi had been billed as a golden opportunity for the world’s two best players to underline their credentials for this year’s Ballon D’or award.
Between them, current holder Ronaldo and Messi have won the past six coveted Ballon D’Or contests, awarded to the player voted the world’s best by managers, players and journalists.
But neither Barcelona’s Messi nor Real Madrid’s Ronaldo were anywhere near their brilliant best, with the latter especially anonymous on just his second return to Old Trafford since his 2009 move from Manchester United.
In the end, Portugal claimed only their second win over Argentina, and their first since 1972, thanks to Raphael Guerreiro’s diving header in stoppage-time.
Despite the presence of Ronaldo and Messi, fan interest had been tepid and the disappointing attendance of 41,233 provided a suitably low-key backdrop to a forgettable encounter which proved the stay-aways had got it right.
Inevitably, all eyes were on the sport’s two marquee figures, whose relationship is said to be on the frosty side, when they emerged onto the pitch after exchanging a brief handshake and rather strained smiles in the tunnel.
Ronaldo was given a warm welcome by his old fans, who also made an extra effort to make the United legend feel at home by aiming a few jeers at Messi when the Argentine was in possession.
Messi didn’t look bothered by that inhospitable reception and he provided the first chance when his pass picked out Angel di Maria, with the Manchester United winger curling just wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Messi gave a glimpse of his dazzling close-control when he worked space for a low shot that flashed across goal from an acute angle.
But there was a worrying moment for United manager Louis van Gaal when Di Maria went down in a crumpled heap after being caught on the foot by a late challenge, ironically from Nani, who remains on United’s books despite being loaned to Sporting Lisbon.
With United plagued by injures at present, Van Gaal, watching from the stands, must have breathed a sigh of relief when Di Maria returned to the fray.
– Steal the spotlight –
A rare moment of attacking ingenuity saw Argentina’s Javier Pastore force Beto into action with a save from Facundo Roncaglia’s cross.
That finally provoked a response from Ronaldo, who teased Roncaglia with a pair of impudent step-overs before shooting wastefully off-target with Danny unmarked in a better position.
But aside from that shot and a clever backheel which released Jose Bosingwa for a wayward cross, there was little from Ronaldo to get the Old Trafford crowd out of their seats.
Messi’s free-kick failed to trouble Beto moments later as the superstars unsuccessfully tried to steal the spotlight.
The headline act ended at the break when Ronaldo was replaced by Ricardo Quaresma and Messi made way for Nicolas Gaitan.
Di Maria, who moments earlier had tested Beto with a long-range effort, was replaced by Juventus striker Carlos Tevez early in the second half, making his second Argentina appearance in a week after being recalled from a three-year international exile.
Tevez, a familiar face to fans in Manchester after spells at United and then City, saw Gaitan guide a looping header wide soon after his introduction.
But it was Fernando Santos’s side who won it when Lorient left-back Guerreiro was left completely unmarked to head in Quaresma’s cross- AFP