Football’s god on earth is not used to being upstaged, but it happened to Lionel Messi on 60 minutes here when, much to the confusion of a sizeable Latin contingent in the crowd, the loud sound of “Bubbles” emanated from the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand and West Ham welcomed back its prodigal son.
Carlos Tevez’s questionable attitude has been no small cause for the three-year gap in his international career that finally came to an end here. But at Upton Park, there remains almost no hero like him.
In the first half his gentle jogs down the touchline to the corner of the Bobby Moore Stand and back were all it took to send its lower tier seemingly apoplectic. Even with the top tier entirely deserted, it has rarely seemed louder.
They were intimidated at first – Messi, Di Maria, Aguero – and the rest of the nearly men, and who can blame them? As West Ham’s fans never tire of telling you, this is a corner of east London that likes to win the World Cup, not merely come close.
A sweeping move from Croatia down the right gave them an unlikely lead on 11 minutes, rather upsetting the script, as they did in the World Cup’s opening match against Brazil, too.
It took almost 50 minutes for full-back Christian Ansaldi to turn the match back in Argentina’s favour with a long-range shot that took the kind of deflection serious enough to bother the dubious goals panel. If it does decide to award it to Sergio Aguero, it will have to ignore that, in characteristically Argentinian style, it appeared to enter the goal via his hand.
From then on, the Upton Park crowd started to see glimmers of the type of football they have become used to this season, Messi briefly dancing across the edge of the box and looking every inch the equal of a resurgent Stewart Downing.
It was just short of the hour, thanks to a darting run round a flailing Croatian keeper from Aguero, that Messi was able to give the fans the “I was there” moment they came for, easing his penalty into the bottom right.
It was a chance to lay some ghosts to rest for Javier Mascherano, too. More recently the unstoppable force in his country’s march to the World Cup final and an immovable part of the furniture at the Nou Camp, he never could quite wrest the jersey from Hayden Mullins in Alan Pardew’s formidable engine room. He fired in a thunderbolt 15 minutes before the end, bending as it moved toward the keeper, but not quite enough.
There was a time when the red and white of Croatia were easy to spot in the Upton Park crowd, when Slaven Bilic and Rio Ferdinand formed a languid partnership in central defence. Croatia tried to be obdurate, but to subdue the shifting shapes of Argentina’s glittering attack as it darts about the final third would have required far more application than they seemed willing to commit. They took their time but, in the end , in the home of Big Sam’s Azulgranas, Messi’s Albicelestes were worthy tenants.
Argentina Romero; Zabaleta, Vergini, Fazio, Ansaldi, Perez, Mascherano, Banega, Di Maria, Messi, Aguero. Substitutes Caballero,Biglia, Roncaglia, Demichelis, Tevez, Lamela, Gaitan, Pastore, Pereyra, Silva, Guzman.
Croatia L Kalinic; Strinic, Jedvaj, Milic, Leovac, Badelj, Jajalo, Rog, Kovacic, Sharbini, N Kalinic. Substitutes Vargic, Mitrovic, Halilovic, Cop,Tomecak, Jajalo, Strinic, Rog.
Referee A Marriner (England).
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