ROME (AP) — An Argentina side without Lionel Messi beat Italy 2-1 Wednesday in a friendly match honoring Pope Francis.
Gonzalo Higuain put Argentina in front in the 20th minute and substitute Ever Banega doubled its lead four minutes into the second half before Lorenzo Insigne pulled one back with his first goal for Italy in the 76th minute.
Higuain, Napoli's new signing, was one of several Argentina players currently in Serie A.
Pope Francis is an avid football fan, who comes from Argentina. He met the teams in the Apostolic Palace on Tuesday.
AC Milan and Italy striker Mario Balotelli missed the match with an injury. Both he and Messi returned to their respective clubs Tuesday night.
The last time the teams met was in 2001 — also a friendly in Rome that Argentina won 2-1. Before that, Diego Maradona's Argentina eliminated host Italy from the 1990 World Cup on penalties in a semifinal in Naples.
"We met a team of great quality, one of the best in the world," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "We made mistakes coming out of defense and started badly, but then we did well.
"We lacked that grit and finish around the penalty area, but the team did well. Honor to Argentina, it is a very strong side."
The match was also used to promote peace and camaraderie in sport and to that end both teams had been staying at the same hotel and had traveled to the Stadio Olimpico together.
Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon and his Argentina counterpart Javier Mascherano also planted an olive tree in a temporary pot after the national anthems, as a sign of unity. The tree will be kept in the Vatican gardens.
All that had little impact on the teams' competitiveness on the pitch, as the match was fast-paced right from kickoff.
Italy had a good chance early on as Daniele De Rossi collected the ball in his own penalty area and dribbled downfield before lifting an accurate long ball to release Pablo Osvaldo. However, Argentina goalkeeper Mariano Andujar rushed out to clear the danger.
It was Osvaldo's first match back since being kicked out of the Confederations Cup squad for insulting his club coach at Roma — a breach of Prandelli's strict code of ethics. The Roma striker was born in Buenos Aires.
Argentina went even closer two minutes later as Higuain raced into the area but Giorgio Chiellini got in a perfectly timed tackle to clear the ball for a corner before the former Real Madrid player could unleash a shot.
Chiellini, who was celebrating his 29th birthday, also headed the resulting corner out to safety.
Argentina took the lead after Italy lost the ball in midfield and Erik Lamela picked out Higuain, who was given too much space in the box by De Rossi and Verratti and he curled a shot into the right hand side of goal.
Italy started looking more dangerous, especially down the right flank, and almost took the lead in the 39th minute. Antonio Candreva put in yet another cross from the right, but Claudio Marchisio — seemingly surprised to find himself completely unmarked — failed to connect from a meter out.
Argentina should have doubled its lead on the stroke of halftime when Rodrigo Palacio slid in, in front of an empty net, but didn't connect properly with Angel Di Maria's cross and blazed the ball over the crossbar from close range.
Argentina did so shortly after the restart. Higuain rolled the ball across to an unmarked Banega following a swift counter attack, and the halftime substitute drilled a low shot into the bottom left corner.
Argentina could have extended its lead in the 56th minute when Palacio's ball was parried by Federico Marchetti — who had come on for Buffon moments earlier — but only as far as Higuain. However, Marchetti got back up swiftly to palm away his effort and De Rossi cleared the danger.
Italy almost grabbed one back but Andujar did well to tip Alessandro Diamanti's free kick onto the crossbar. The rebound was eventually bundled into the net by Candreva, but he was clearly offside.
The hosts did reduce the deficit in stunning fashion. Osvaldo touched the ball onto Insigne and, with his first touch, the 22-year-old lifted the ball perfectly into the top right corner from 25 yards. It was Inisgne's second game for Italy.
"It was a wonderful sensation to score," Insigne said. "I always try those shots and it went well tonight.
"It was a wonderful feeling to meet the pope, I got goosebumps because it doesn't happen every day. I still need to fully realize it happened."