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ABU DHABI: The player the crowd had come to see hardly needed emphasizing. And Lionel Messi — with more than a little help from Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Angel Di Maria — duly delivered. He lit up the Abu Dhabi night with some scintillating football, especially during the first half, as Argentina defeated the UAE 5-0 in their final friendly before heading to Qatar for the World Cup.
Usually, the stands at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium are a sea of white. But not on Wednesday night. An eclectic crowd, including many UAE fans, filled the stadium to capacity in a rare display of color and noise. It was all for one man: Messi. Over the next hour and half, he would not disappoint.
Argentina established their clear superiority from the start and barely relented for the remainder of a memorable first half.
On 17 minutes, Messi, finding a criminal amount of space down the right flank, squared the ball for Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez to tap past Khalid Eisa in the UAE goal.
Messi was starting to direct operations. Minutes later, he almost found Di Maria with delicate chip that was cleared for corner.
The respite did not last long. On 26 minutes, Marcos Acuna found Di Maria with a raking cross and the Paris Saint-Germain man scored with a stunning left-foot volley in what was the highlight of the match so far.
Meanwhile, the decibel level rose every time Messi touched the ball — and the noise might have blown the roof off the stadium had a trademark run and cut inside ended in a goal instead of a blocked shot.
A pass by Alexis Mac Allister on 35 minutes found Di Maria inside the UAE box and the winger danced through the Emirati challenges and around the goalkeeper to tap the ball into an empty net.
Di Maria had perfectly set the stage for the inevitable. A minute before the break, the moment almost everyone in the stadium had been waiting for — including, perhaps, most Emirati fans — finally arrived. Messi exchanged passes with Di Maria, drifted past Al-Hassan Saleh as if he wasn’t there and finished with his right foot, sending the ball into the roof of Eisa’s net.
It was 4-0 at half time, with the promise of more to come, and the performance by the South Americans will have given Herve Renard, Saudi Arabia’s manager, plenty think about ahead of his team’s World Cup opener against Argentina on Nov. 22.
The second half began, surprisingly, with the UAE on the front foot. Abdalla Ramadan hit the previously under-employed Emiliano Martinez’s post with a brilliant strike from distance and then, seconds later, Caio Canedo’s shot was spilled by the Argentine keeper, who recovered to gather safely.
The UAE were, finally, giving as good as they were getting. Not surprisingly this lull in Argentina’s attacks did not last.
On the hour, Rodrigo De Paul found Joaquin Correa, who had replaced Di Maria, with a delicate pass and the Inter Milan man finished neatly to claim Argentina’s fifth.
A minute later, Canedo’s trickery afforded him a little space inside the opposition area but, from a tight angle, he shot high and wide.
On 67 minutes the crowd erupted, seemingly for no apparent reason. It turned out that Messi had given them a wave.
Canedo, the UAE’s brightest player all night, was unlucky not to score from substitute Khalid Hashemi’s excellent cross, instead glancing the ball wide.
As the game continued there were sporadic shouts of “UAE. UAE. UAE.”
“Messi. Messi. Messi,” came the reply.
Martinez was called upon to pull off an almost miraculous double save from, firstly, Abdulaziz Haikal, and then Canedo. The UAE would come no closer to scoring on the night.
At the final whistle blew, the man everyone had come to see applauded the delirious crowd. “Messi. Messi. Messi.” They got exactly what they had come for.



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