MARSEILLE, February 11 – Diego Maradona milked the adulation of the home fans beforehand but it was Lionel Messi who stole the show, capping a virtuoso performance with a goal as Argentina beat France 2-0 at Marseille's Stade Velodrome on Wednesday.
Having reminisced earlier in the week about how he almost joined Marseille from Napoli in 1989, Maradona was given a rapturous reception from the French fans, who were far less cordial towards their own handler Raymond Domenech, architect of their first-round exit at Euro 2008.
And the majority of the sellout 60,000 crowd will have recognised that the French were deservedly beaten as the ‘albiceleste’ won with an opener four minutes before half-time from Jonas Gutierrez and then a Messi special eight minutes before the end.
"My lads played really well," Maradona told French television as he commiserated with Domenech,
"I am really happy with their performance."
Asked about his reception from the appreciative crowd Maradona said: "They were great, really good."
Domenech told TF1 television that the French would learn from their experience.
"It was a good match. The players will have picked up some experience and that’s what counts for us along with qualification for the World Cup.
"We lacked a little conviction and effectiveness up front but I think this team has a fine future ahead of it," Domenech insisted, while noting the need to "iron out a few imperfections."
Despite the presence of Messi, who Maradona rates as the best player in the world, it was France who began brightly, his Barcelona colleague Thierry Henry firing high over the bar after Nicolas Anelka had failed to connect properly with a teasing Franck Ribery cross in the tenth minute.
At the other end Messi showed his dribbling abilities with a mazy burst into the box – but William Gallas got back in the nick of time to block his low effort.
Les Bleus were still in the early ascendancy as Argentine shot-stopper Juan Pablo Carrizo rushed out smartly to close down the advancing Anelka before parrying a Henry snapshot on the half-hour. He then smothered a half-hit shot on the turn from the industrious Ribery.
Messi tried to lift the South Americans with another probing run which ended with Gallas dragging him down to earn a caution.
The French had had the lion’s share of the chances but Gutierrez broke the deadlock four minutes before the interval, sweeping in right-footed through the hands of Steve Mandanda for his eighth international goal in 25 appearances.
Marseille keeper Mandanda was more alert moments later when he held a Javier Zanetti drive to keep the deficit at just one goal.
The pace of the match dropped markedly after the break but Philippe Mexes might easily have levelled as he headed over Ribery’s corner six minutes after the restart.
Messi and attacking partner Sergio Aguero were still giving cause for occasional palpitations in the French backline while Ribery was still harrying the visiting defence – Maxi Rodriguez earning a yellow card for trying to curb the Bayern Munich star’s enthusiasm with a crunching tackle.
Defender Bacary Sagna did his best to galvanise a French revival with a fine run midway through the second period but neither Anelka nor Henry were able to get on the end of his cross from the right as the Arsenal ppast-and-present move fizzled out.
Domenech withdrew the disappointing Anelka at that point, sending on Lyon starlet Karim Benzema while Maradona also switched things around, sending on debutant Marcos Alberto Angeleri for Rodriguez and Carlos Tevez for Aguero, the 1986 world champion embracing both of the men he had taken off.
The move immediately paid dividends as Messi latched onto a Tevez flick, then stepped on the accelerator to smash a meaty drive past the despairing Mandanda.