Messi to the fore on mixed night for elite

Wednesday night provided the year’s first major run-out for many national sides, and the majority of matches lacked neither action nor suspense. 

Argentina, spearheaded by Lionel Messi, got the better of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal 2-1 in a pulsating match, while an experimental Brazil side found themselves on the end of a 1-0 defeat to France

England got back to winning ways, seeing off Denmark 2-1, while the Netherlands continued their impressive series of results with a comfortable 3-1 victory in Austria. Italy’s 1-1 draw with Germany extended their unbeaten run in games with Die Nationalmannschaft to 16 years. 

Elsewhere, struggling Spain laboured to a 1-0 win over a lively Colombia side. It was also a successful night for some of football’s more modest national teams, such as Luxembourg, 2-1 winners over Slovakia, and Iran, who overcame Russia 1-0. 

Match of the day
Argentina 2-1 Portugal
Goals: Angel Di Maria 14, Lionel Messi 90 pen (Argentina); Cristiano Ronaldo 21 (Portugal)
In a frantically paced match full of commitment, Argentina and Portugal produced 90 minutes of enthralling football in Geneva. In the early stages, the danger mostly emanated from Argentina’s right flank, where Di Maria and Messi combined to excellent effect. 

The FIFA Ballon d'Or winner was instrumental in the opener, attacking the Portuguese defence head on before cutting infield to deliver a telling through pass for Di Maria, who expertly guided the ball past Eduardo in the Portuguese goal. But this only served to spur on Cristiano Ronaldo, who just minutes later latched on to Hugo Almeida’s headed flick-on to lash the ball past Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero. 

After the break, the pace of the match showed no sign of letting up, as chances became increasingly frequent at both ends, albeit with La Albiceleste posing slightly more of a threat. The breakthrough for the South Americans would come in the final minute, when a clear foul in the area produced a penalty, which Messi dispatched with aplomb. 

The other matches
Vicente del Bosque looked a relieved man at the end of Spain’s encounter with Colombia, after waiting 86 minutes for his side to break the deadlock. David Silva proved La Roja’s saviour, darting into the box to steer Jesus Navas’ cross home with his left foot. Lacking in verve and penetration, the world champions were fortunate on more than one occasion not to get caught out by the rapid counter-attacks of a young Cafetero side that arguably deserved more from the match. 

Germany were unable to avenge their 2006 FIFA World Cup™ semi-final loss to Italy, as the match between the old rivals ended 1-1. Joachim Low’s men had started the match in attack-minded fashion, their influential triumvirate of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and the evergreen Miroslav Klose linking well together, as exemplified by the veteran striker’s first-half goal – his 59th in 106 international appearances. Stung into action, La Nazionale responded by putting their opponents under sustained pressure, culminating in an equaliser nine minutes from time by Giuseppe Rossi, who netted  at the second attempt having been played through by Domenico Criscito. 

France, for their part, pulled off a morale-boosting win over Brazil, confirming their status as the five-time world champions’ bête noire. Karim Benzema and Jeremy Menez in particular led the Brazilian defence a merry dance in the second half, as Mano Menezes’ players struggled to offset the expulsion of Hernanes, guilty of a chest-high kick on Benzema. Les Bleus, who also recently defeated England, appear to have found a new lease of life under Laurent Blanc. 

Pula was the place to be for goals, as Croatia and the Czech Republic put on a high-quality display for the home fans to enjoy. The Croats began strongly, surging into a 2-0 lead after just 13 minutes, but the Czechs fought back, taking advantage of defensive lapses to draw level before the break. The home side would have the final say, however, as man of the match Nikola Kalinic inspired his team to an eventual 4-2 triumph. 

England, despite missing numerous key players through injury, recorded a solid 2-1 win away to Denmark, making up for recent poor performances in the process. Having fallen behind in the 8th minute, Fabio Capello’s men levelled through Darren Bent, then went ahead in the second half courtesy of an Ashley Young goal, his first in an England shirt. 

The Netherlands, also without many of their big names, made light work of Austria with Wesley Sneijder, Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and Dirk Kuyt notching the goals in a 3-1 win. 

Elsewhere, Greece ground out a 1-0 home victory over a hard-working Canada team, and Cameroon won in Macedonia by the same scoreline in a match notable for Matthew Mbuta Andongcho’s debut goal. Serbia will travel home from Israel in good spirits after goals from Zoran Tosic and Vule Trivunovic provided the away side with a 2-0 victory, while Turkey and Korea Republic played out a 0-0 draw. 

Finally, other results of note included a 2-1 defeat for Bolivia against Latvia, with all three goals originating from the penalty spot, and surprise victories for Luxembourg and Iran over Slovakia and Russia respectively. 

Goal of the day
France 1-0 Brazil (Benzema 54)
Menez, beating the Brazilians at their own game, skipped past three yellow shirts before cutting back a precise low cross from the byline towards the back post, where Benzema was ideally placed to slot the ball into the empty net. 

Player of the day
Iran’s Mohammad Reza Khalatbari achieved national hero status by scoring an impressive last-minute winner against Russia. However, having removed his shirt in a spontaneous expression of joy, he received his second yellow card of the evening, and was forced to leave the pitch a little earlier than planned. 

The stat
10 – The number of goals amassed by Huntelaar during the Netherlands’ last six matches. The Schalke striker has now scored 26 goals in 42 games for the South Africa 2010 finalists. 

Have your say
After a spellbinding encounter in Geneva, which star impressed you the most, Messi or Ronaldo?