Seven months on from their gripping World Cup round of 16 clash in Doha, world champions Argentina have defeated Australia 2-0 in Beijing.
An early Lionel Messi strike and Germán Pezzella’s header were the difference between the two sides in a mostly even affair at the Workers’ Stadium.
Indeed, just when you think there are no more records for Messi to break, another falls: his strike, coming just 81 seconds in, was the fastest of his career.
Two horror moments let the Socceroos down in an otherwise capable performance in their first outing since a double header against Ecuador in March.
There were some positives for Graham Arnold, but a crucial turnover in the lead-up to the Messi strike and Pezzella somehow being left unmarked will have caused plenty of frustration.
It didn’t take long for Messi to make his mark. He capitalised on a Socceroos defensive mistake with a trademark curling effort past Mat Ryan in just the second minute of play to give Argentina a very early lead.
The dreadful start would certainly not have pleased Arnold, who had pivoted to a 4-4-2 set-up for the friendly and brought Keanu Baccus back into the starting 11 to partner Aiden O’Neill in midfield.
Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni selected a strong line-up, featuring the likes of new Liverpool signing Alexis Mac Allister, Angel Di Maria and, of course, Messi.
The superstar, who is on the brink of joining MLS club Inter Miami, was involved in everything early, playing give-and-gos with Di Maria and torturing the Socceroos backline.
Messi mania was in full force at the Workers’ Stadium, with 68,000 fans collectively gasping every time the 35-year-old touched the ball.
Australia struggled for any momentum in attack, routinely giving the ball away cheaply thanks to a concerted Argentina press.
Mitch Duke had his side’s first real chance of the night, but was denied by an excellent Emi Martinez reflex save down to his left after Jordan Bos sent a perfect delivery into the penalty area.
After the disastrous start and a poor opening 10 minutes, Australia had managed to settle well and went into half-time with the balance of play fairly even.
The Socceroos began to enjoy a much better period, controlling possession and applying pressure with multiple corners, though Messi had another chance but could only direct a chip on his weaker right foot over Ryan’s crossbar.
Arnold went to his bench at the break, with Jamie Maclaren making way for Ajdin Hrustic. There was no change in shape as Maclaren’s club teammate Mat Leckie joined Duke up top.
Ryan was under fire as soon as the second half got underway, making a fantastic double save to deny Di Maria a second Argentina goal.
Scaloni then withdrew Mac Allister, giving Julian Alvarez the final third of the contest to make an impression with Di Maria also taken off.
As the minutes ticked down Arnold went for another change, Western Sydney Wanderer Brandon Borrello replaced Duke.
Nineteen-year-old centre-half Alessandro Circati, called up to the national team for the first time, would have to wait for his Socceroos debut.
The second goal came with 68 minutes on the block. Messi combined well with Rodrigo De Paul at a corner, and the midfielder expertly picked out an unmarked Pezzella. The centre-half made no mistake with the free header.
As competent as the Socceroos had looked, it was two defensive howlers that proved to be the difference between them and the world champions.
It would end 2-0, with the Chinese fans getting what they came to see and Scaloni walking away the more satisfied manager.
Only three FIFA windows now remain before Arnold will select his Asian Cup squad, providing limited opportunities for combinations to gel. Football Australia’s choice of opponents for those windows will be imperative.
This was a tough task against one of the best sides in the world, and it may not get much easier for Australia, depending on who the Socceroos will take on in the following windows.
What’s for certain is that more complete performances will be demanded by Arnold as he chases his first trophy as national team boss in Qatar next January.