MARSEILLE - Lionel Messi netted a sublime second-half goal to complete a 2-0 friendly win against France on Wednesday, ensuring Diego Maradona maintained his perfect start as Argentina coach. Newcastle United midfielder Jonas Gutierrez collected a Sergio Aguero cross from the right and fired past France keeper Steve Mandanda to put the visitors ahead four minutes before the interval. But the icing on the cake was Messi's goal seven minutes from time, the Barcelona forward slotting the ball past Mandanda following an impressive slalom through the defence. It was Maradona's second victory in two matches since he took over as Argentina coach last November. "It's extremely positive," said Maradona, who started his job with a 1-0 win over Scotland in November but knew World Cup finalists France would be a tougher nut to crack. "After 20 minutes, my players had possession of the ball and when they do, it's great because we don't have to defend. "I have a fantastic squad. All the tactics we had discussed, the players applied them." Argentina started cautiously but Gutierrez's strike gave them the confidence to frustrate France. The home side were pressing high, with Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff harassing Argentina's defensive midfielders. Real Madrid's new signing Lassana Diarra, who was paired with Lyon's Jeremy Toulalan, was in charge of Messi and he did not let him have an inch of space in the opening 15 minutes. In the 16th, however, the Barcelona forward pierced through the French defence only for his low drive to be deflected by William Gallas. REGROUP Shortly before the half hour, Gourcuff created space for Nicolas Anelka with a defence-splitting pass but the Chelsea striker was denied by Juan Pablo Carrizo, who was on the spot again to block a Ribery shot three minutes later. However, Argentina went ahead in the 41st minute when Aguero lofted the ball for Gutierrez to fire home. "They played very nicely and we conceded goals at key moments of the game," said France midfielder Toulalan. "Before they opened the scoring, we had a strong hold on the match." Raymond Domenech substituted Anelka for Karim Benzema in the 65th minute but with Gourcuff and Ribery struggling to escape the clutches of Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano there was little ammunition for the French forwards. In the 81st minute, Aguero made room for Carlos Tevez, whose impact was almost immediate as he launched a counter attack from his own half to set up Messi for his team's second goal. Thierry Henry urged his team mates to regroup ahead of next month's World Cup qualifying games against Lithuania. "There is nothing worrying about this defeat. What's important now are the games against Lithuania," he said. France travel to Kaunas on March 28 and host Lithuania four days later at the Stade de France. The World Cup finalists lie third in Group 7 with four points from three matches and have a game in hand on Lithuania and Serbia, who have nine points. France coach Domenech shared the Barcelona striker's view. "The goal has not changed, it's to qualify for the World Cup," he said. "I am convinced that we have a solid team, that we are able to achieve something.
11 February 2009
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