Lionel Messi was reduced to watching on from the stands with Sergio Agüero but in the pair’s absence, Argentina managed to grind out a 2-0 win over Italy in Manchester.
For large parts Jorge Sampaoli would have been frustrated by his side’s lack of creativity when around the Italian penalty area but two moments of quality in an otherwise poor second half display gave some reason for optimism.
Argentina’s dependence on Messi has been well documented so news of the muscle fatigue that would keep him out of the match was a blow to Sampaoli and those in attendance at the Etihad Stadium.
With no Paulo Dybala or Mauro Icardi in the squad, Argentina were left to rely on the familiar faces of Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María along with relative newcomers Manuel Lanzini and Giovani Lo Celso.
Pressing intensely from the outset, Argentina had the better of the opening 45 minutes with Nicolás Tagliafico and Fabricio Bustos adding the desired width from full-back and Di María stretching the Italian defence.
Nicolás Otamendi, Di María, Tagliafico, Leandro Paredes and a glorious chance for Gonzalo Higuaín were all thwarted by Gianluigi Buffon as the first half ended goalless.
For all these chances, Argentina should have been behind early in the second half when a wayward Paredes pass gifted Italy a chance only for Lorenzo Insigne to fire wide when one-on-one with Willy Caballero.
The 36-year-old finally getting his chance for Argentina wasn’t required to stop that chance but as Italy began to dominate, Caballero made a string of saves to surely secure a place in Sampaoli’s World Cup squad.
Éver Banega was introduced and soon after provided a glimpse of his quality and gam-changing ability, showing quick feet to escape one challenge, playing a one-two with Lo Celso and firing past Buffon to break the deadlock.
Italy still fancied their chances but having pushed forward, Argentina struck on the counter and Gonzalo Higuaín found fellow River Plate graduate, Manuel Lanzini who emphatically found the top corner.
It was far from a display that will changed many opinions regarding Argentina’s chances in Russia but the performances of the full-backs and Banega and Lanzini in the absence of Messi, there is still hope that Sampaoli can mold a team ready to challenge for the World Cup.
Argentina (4-4-1-1): Caballero; Bustos (Mercado 89), Otamendi, Fazio, Tagliafico; Paredes (Banega 64), Biglia; Lo Celso (Pavón 76), Lanzini, Di María (Perotti 64); Higuaín