Offside’s week in international football with Rooney, Messi, Ronaldo & more

A gap in the fixture lists of the club scene can only mean one thing for football punters: the discoveries and delights of international week. And Offside Sports Photography were out in force, as ever, to capture the best sights to reach the British Isles during this break from the Premier League and other domestic competitions.

Marc Atkins: A general view of Upton Park.
Marc Atkins: A general view of Upton Park.

First up was Argentina vs. Croatia at Upton Park: a much hyped showcase of a friendly that was designed to bring such starry names as Lionel Messi and Luka Modric to East London. The action was shot by Marc Atkins and Mark Leech.

However, the Real Madrid midfielder and former Tottenham Hotspur playmaker never made it onto the field, with a team of second-string players and exciting youngsters instead opposing Messi and his fellow World Cup runners-up.

Mark Leech: Mateo Kovacic of Croatia.
Mark Leech: Mateo Kovacic of Croatia.

Instead, it was Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic who caught the eye amongst the Croatian ranks with a number of brilliant forward balls to almost undo Argentina’s defence on a number of occasions.

Mark Leech: Mateo Kovacic of Croatia is followed by Pablo Zabaleta of Argentina.
Mark Leech: Mateo Kovacic of Croatia is followed by Pablo Zabaleta of Argentina.

His powers of invention played their part in creating the opener too, which was scored by midfielder Anas Sharbini after just 11 minutes.

Marc Atkins: Mateo Kovacic and Lionel Messi.
Marc Atkins: Mateo Kovacic and Lionel Messi.

It was a bright start for Croatia, who looked the more threatening side early on, thanks in part to Argentina’s determination to rush forward in numbers while their opponents stood firm and looked to counter.

Marc Atkins: Lionel Messi in action with Marko Leskovic against the backdrop of the Bobby Moore stand at Upton Park.
Marc Atkins: Lionel Messi in action with Marko Leskovic against the backdrop of the Bobby Moore stand at Upton Park.

And that first ball out of transition so often came from Kovacic. His numerous flicks, touches, headers, turns and slick moments of hold-up play and dribbling lit up the first half before his substitution at half-time.

Marc Atkins: Alen Halilovic.
Marc Atkins: Alen Halilovic.

In his place, on came Alen Halilovic, Barcelona’s new, diminutive wonder kid, signed in the summer from Dinamo Zagreb.

Marc Atkins: Fans reach for the cameras as Lionel Messi of Argentina heads in their direction.
Marc Atkins: Fans reach for the cameras as Lionel Messi of Argentina heads in their direction.

Yet Croatia’s lead didn’t last long in the second half. Cristian Ansaldi scored the equaliser that always looked likely to come on the 49 minute mark, with his ranged shot deflecting wildly off to back of Sergio Aguero and into the net.

Marc Atkins: Sergio Aguero of Argentina keeps his eye on the ball.
Marc Atkins: Sergio Aguero of Argentina keeps his eye on the ball.

It was a lucky strike, but Aguero’s involvement was perhaps fitting with the Manchester City forward having looked like one of Argentina’s brightest sparks in the first half. His combination with Messi dazzled at times even if it wasn’t as dangerous as expected.

Marc Atkins: Carlos Tevez sits on the substitutes bench at the Boleyn Ground.
Marc Atkins: Carlos Tevez sits on the substitutes bench at the Boleyn Ground.

An earlier effort by the striker from 40-odd yards however forced a similarly spectacular save from Lovre Kalinic, who had to dive high and wide to keep it out of the far top corner of his goal.

Marc Atkins: Lionel Messi of Argentina.
Marc Atkins: Lionel Messi of Argentina.

On the 56th minute mark, the attacker and his rival keeper came together at close quarters, with Kalinic bringing down Aguero in the box to hand Messi the match-winning penalty.

Marc Atkins: Carlos Tevez in action with Matej Mitrovic and Sime Vrsaljko.
Marc Atkins: Carlos Tevez in action with Matej Mitrovic and Sime Vrsaljko.

That would be one of the City striker’s last contributions, as he was replaced by West Ham’s homecoming hero, Carlos Tevez, after 62 minutes.

Upton Park was clearly delighted with his presence on the pitch, and cheered almost every move, run and touch he made. The locals and their celebrations of the Juventus man were further amplified by the Argentina fans, for whom Tevez is a cult hero, and more popular than Messi in the eyes of many.

Marc Atkins: Angel Di Maria of Argentina in action with Tin Jedvaj.
Marc Atkins: Angel Di Maria of Argentina in action with Tin Jedvaj.
Mark Leech: A small clutch of Argentina fans in the stadium.
Mark Leech: A small clutch of Argentina fans in the stadium.

After missing out on the 2014 World Cup squad due to being eyed as a disruptive influence by Tata Martino’s predecessors in the Argentina dug out, it appears that the fan favourite is back in the fold.

Marc Atkins: Kyle Beckerman of USA.
Marc Atkins: Kyle Beckerman of USA.

Marc was busy again just a couple of nights later on the other side of London, with Colombia at Fulham’s Craven Cottage to face Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA.

Marc Atkins: James Rodriguez.
Marc Atkins: James Rodriguez.

Hopes were high for the USMNT after their strong showing in the World Cup, but given the performance of Jose Pekerman’s own side in Brazil during the summer, expectations may have been a touch optimistic.

Marc Atkins: Jermaine Jones of USA in action with Carlos Bacca of Colombia.
Marc Atkins: Jermaine Jones of USA in action with Carlos Bacca of Colombia.

Yet the US were the first team to take the lead through Jozy Alitdore. While Premier League fans may not rate the Sunderland striker, has been a key player for his country for a number of years now.

Marc Atkins: Jozy Altidore of USA.
Marc Atkins: Jozy Altidore of USA.

His goal came from the spot after Pablo Armero handled in the area to grant the USA a penalty. With just nine minutes played, the North Americans were 1-0 up.

Carlos Bacca went close to an equaliser just after the half an hour mark, but hit the post rather than the back of the net. And it wasn’t Los Cafeteros‘ last chance of the game.

Marc Atkins: James Rodriguez of Columbia takes on the USA defenders.
Marc Atkins: James Rodriguez of Columbia takes on the USA defenders.

Brad Guzan was a busy man throughout the game, although he escaped to the half-time whistle with his team’s lead intact. Colombia had to wait for their breakthrough.

Marc Atkins: Brad Guzan.
Marc Atkins: Brad Guzan.

It was Bacca who finally found the leveller after the hour mark, with World Cup golden boot winner James Rodriguez playing the role of provider for his countryman.

Marc Atkins: Dejected USA fans.
Marc Atkins: Dejected USA fans.

Teofilo Gutierrez needed a little more time to find the winner, smashing home a header on the 87 minute mark to claim the result in the name of Colombia.

Not the night that team USA and their fans had hope for at Craven Cottage.

Simon Stacpoole: A spotlight falls on a young Scotland fan peruses a souvenir stall.
Simon Stacpoole: A spotlight falls on a young Scotland fan peruses a souvenir stall.

Offside’s first competitive fixture of the week saw Simon Stacpoole take the trip up to Glasgow for Scotland’s European Championship Group D qualifier clash with the Republic of Ireland.

Simon Stacpoole: Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane.
Simon Stacpoole: Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane.

With Hampden Park still out of action while work takes place to restore the home of Scottish football after its transformation into an athletics venue for the Commonwealth Games, Ireland boss Martin O’Neil returned to his old stomping ground at Celtic Park.

Simon Stacpoole: Steven Naismith of Scotland battles with Jeff Hendrick of Ireland.
Simon Stacpoole: Steven Naismith of Scotland battles with Jeff Hendrick of Ireland.

Given the context of a surprisingly open race for qualification within their group, and the intense media build up to the fixture, it was a full-blooded showdown from the off.

Passion, power, commitment and all the other usual tropes of a good, honest dust up between two regional rivals were on show as tackles took precedent over technical football, at least in the early stages.

Simon Stacpoole: Darron Gibson tackles Shaun Maloney.
Simon Stacpoole: Darron Gibson tackles Shaun Maloney.

The Irish appeared to benefit from the combative nature of the game, managing a few shots from midfield in the first half.

Simon Stacpoole: Scotland manager Gordon Strachan watches the action.
Simon Stacpoole: Scotland manager Gordon Strachan watches the action.

However, once the Scots were able to compose themselves and calm the pace slightly, Gordon Strachan’s demands for a focus on possession and individual skill from his individual players told.

Simon Stacpoole: Darron Gibson of Ireland battles with Charlie Mulgrew of Scotland.
Simon Stacpoole: Darron Gibson of Ireland battles with Charlie Mulgrew of Scotland.

Steven Naismith, Shaun Maloney and Charlie Mulgrew all combined well to put David Forde under pressure with their approach play and movement.

Simon Stacpoole: Shane Long looks to get by Russell Martin.
Simon Stacpoole: Shane Long looks to get by Russell Martin.

Yet come the second half, the score line remained stuck at 0-0, with the likes of Steven Fletcher failing to make chances pay.

Simon Stacpoole: Shaun Maloney scores the winner for Scotland.
Simon Stacpoole: Shaun Maloney scores the winner for Scotland.

It took the home side until the 74th minute to find the winning goal, with Maloney firing a brilliant shot through the box off a Scott Brown back heel; a moment worthy of winning most games.

Simon Stacpoole: Scotland manager Gordon Strachan as Ireland manager Martin O'Neill looks on.
Simon Stacpoole: Scotland manager Gordon Strachan as Ireland manager Martin O’Neill looks on.

Scotland weren’t out of the woods however, with their narrow lead almost wrecked by a header from their own central defender, Grant Hanley, which crashed upon the crossbar.

Simon Stacpoole: Richard Keogh of Ireland.
Simon Stacpoole: Richard Keogh of Ireland.

Come the final whistle, Strachan’s victorious team found themselves level on points with Ireland and their fellow qualification rivals Germany, behind leaders Poland.

Simon Stacpoole: Wembley Way.
Simon Stacpoole: Wembley Way.

The follow evening in Group E, England hosted Slovenia at Wembley, with Simon Stacpoole and Marc Atkins again Offside’s men on the sidelines.

Marc Atkins: England manager Roy Hodgson with his assistant Ray Lewington.
Marc Atkins: England manager Roy Hodgson with his assistant Ray Lewington.
Marc Atkins: England fans hold up a banner for Wayne Rooney's 100th Cap.
Marc Atkins: England fans hold up a banner for Wayne Rooney’s 100th Cap.

Captain Wayne Rooney led the way as the first name on Roy Hodgson’s team sheet, collecting his 100th cap for his country; a milestone that didn’t go unnoticed in the stands or in the media.

He was even presented with a golden cap by Sir Bobby Charlton before kick-off.

Slovenia were tipped by some to spring a surprise upon their hosts, and for the first 45 minutes they looked like they might have the measure of the Three Lions.

Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England takes a tumble.
Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England takes a tumble.

Half-time couldn’t come soon enough, with the Wembley turf cut up from the recent NFL game staged at the venue, and England struggling to get into gear.

Marc Atkins: Jordan Henderson looks on as his header loops over Joe Hart for an own goal.
Marc Atkins: Jordan Henderson looks on as his header loops over Joe Hart for an own goal.

Things took a turn for the worse early in the second half as Jordan Henderson put the ball into his own net after 57 minutes. Joe Hart looked completely beaten by his team mates accidentally brilliant header from a Milivoje Novakovic free kick.

Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England scores their 1st goal with a penalty.
Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England scores their 1st goal with a penalty.
Marc Atkins: Wayne Rooney celebrates his equaliser.
Marc Atkins: Wayne Rooney celebrates his equaliser.

England’s new centurion soon stepped up to the plate to negate the deficit, with Slovenia’s lead cut after just two minutes from a Rooney penalty kick that he had won himself.

Marc Atkins: Jack Wilshere tangles with Zlatan Ljubijankic and Ales Mertelj.
Marc Atkins: Jack Wilshere tangles with Zlatan Ljubijankic and Ales Mertelj.

The Manchester United forward’s former club mate, Danny Welbeck, then popped up to add the winner and some sparkle to the contest, with two goals.

Marc Atkins: Danny Welbeck makes it 2-1.
Marc Atkins: Danny Welbeck makes it 2-1.

His first was a scuffed shot that evaded Samir Handanovic to hand England their first lead of the game. The Arsenal striker’s second was a far more accomplished effort.

Marc Atkins: Danny Welbeck makes it 3-1.
Marc Atkins: Danny Welbeck makes it 3-1.
Simon Stacpoole: Danny Welbeck of England scores their 3rd goal.
Simon Stacpoole: Danny Welbeck of England scores their 3rd goal.

After playing a one-two with Raheem Sterling, Welbeck slipped the ball home to make it 3-1 to England.

With four games played,  Hodgson’s side finished the game at the top of Group E, with 12 points, six ahead of their beaten foes and closest qualification rivals.

Marc Atkins: A pair of vans are driven around the perimeter of the pitch bearing an image of members of the Belgium football team.
Marc Atkins: A pair of vans are driven around the perimeter of the pitch bearing an image of members of the Belgium football team.

Now to Group B where Belgium faced Wales at the King Baudouin Stadium in Belgium, where Marc Atkins was waiting with his camera.

Marc Atkins: Gareth Bale of Wales.
Marc Atkins: Gareth Bale of Wales.

Gareth Bale was the obvious, main attraction for the assembled shooters, but it’s a testament to the exciting quality of the current generations of players from these two nations that he wasn’t the only individual worthy of some attention.

Marc Atkins: Eden Hazard.
Marc Atkins: Eden Hazard.
Marc Atkins: Aaron Ramsey tangles with Toby Alderweireld.
Marc Atkins: Aaron Ramsey tangles with Toby Alderweireld.

In a match packed with Premier League stars, Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderwiereld, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Nacer Chadli, Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke; and Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey all played a part over the course of the game.

Marc Atkins: Adnan Januzaj, Christian Benteke and Jason Denayer on the Beglian subs bench.
Marc Atkins: Adnan Januzaj, Christian Benteke and Jason Denayer on the Beglian subs bench.
Marc Atkins: Gareth Bale speaks to his team mates during a break in play.
Marc Atkins: Gareth Bale speaks to his team mates during a break in play.

Other names that were once familiar, or are soon to become better known on these shores, also featured, such as Kevin De Bruyne and Divock Origi.

Marc Atkins: Marouane Fellaini goes for the ball as Joe Ledley looks on.
Marc Atkins: Marouane Fellaini goes for the ball as Joe Ledley looks on.

It was, forgive the cliché, a game of two halves, with Belgium dominating the first half and regularly testing Wayne Hennessey before Wales grew into the match after the break, with Bale leading the charge.

Marc Atkins: Gareth Bale strikes a free kick.
Marc Atkins: Gareth Bale strikes a free kick.
Marc Atkins: Wales manager Chris Coleman.
Marc Atkins: Wales manager Chris Coleman.

Neither team were able to break the deadlock however, and Chris Coleman will likely have left Belgium delighted at having snatched a draw against a team who were tipped to be dark horses for the World Cup in the summer.

IPP: A flare is thrown from the stands.
IPP: A flare is thrown from the stands.

On the same night, Italy faced Croatia in Group H. IPP covered the action at the San Siro in Milan.

IPP: A fireman puts out a flare thrown onto the pitch behind the referee.
IPP: A fireman puts out a flare thrown onto the pitch behind the referee.
IPP: A fireman puts out a flare thrown onto the pitch.
IPP: A fireman puts out a flare thrown onto the pitch.

While the match ebbed and flowed between the two nations to a final score of 1-1, the action off the field was far more fiery.

IPP: Croatia fans light up the stadium with their flares..
IPP: Croatia fans light up the stadium with their flares..

UEFA are now set to investigate the behaviour of fans at the stadium, with sections of the support literally flaring up in the stands.

IPP: Croatia fans throw flares onto the pitch.
IPP: Croatia fans throw flares onto the pitch.

Both goals came within the first 20 minutes, with Antonio Candreva’s opener soon cancelled out by Ivan Perisic, with attention later in the game shifting to the intervention of Italian police.

IPP: Croatia fans light up the stadium with their flares.
IPP: Croatia fans light up the stadium with their flares.

The result left both nations tied on 10 points at the top of Group H.

IPP: Croatia fans light up the stadium with their flares as a linesman looks on.
IPP: Croatia fans light up the stadium with their flares as a linesman looks on.

With competitive matters settled, the fixture list turned friendly once more, as Argentina and Portugal landed in Manchester for a big name clash between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford.

Marc Atkins: Half and Half scarves for sale outside Old Trafford.
Marc Atkins: Half and Half scarves for sale outside Old Trafford.
Marc Atkins: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal looks at Lionel Messi of Argentina as the teams line up before kick off.
Marc Atkins: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal looks at Lionel Messi of Argentina as the teams line up before kick off.

Marc Atkins was the man charged with capturing these two super stars in their natural habitat: neck-and-neck competition with one and other.

Those who paid big to enjoy a super-powered spectacle may have left the Theatre Of Dreams deflated however.

Neither star lasted more than 45 minutes on the field, with both national managers deciding to withdraw Messi and Ronaldo at the break.

Marc Atkins: Nani of Portugal in action with Lionel Messi and Lucas Bigla of Argentina.
Marc Atkins: Nani of Portugal in action with Lionel Messi and Lucas Bigla of Argentina.

Was it pressure from Real and Barcelona over playing time and injury risks that caused the two coaches to cave in, or did they merely fancy the idea of testing other faces within their squad? Who knows.

Marc Atkins:  Fans rise in unison to take photos of Lionel Messi of Argentina.
Marc Atkins: Fans rise in unison to take photos of Lionel Messi of Argentina.

If it was the former, then Carlo Ancelotti and Luis Enrique  will now be feeling very satisfied with the fact that their requests were honoured, with Louis van Gaal now facing up to losing Angel Di Maria for a period of time after he broke down.

Marc Atkins: Andel Di Maria of Argentina in action with Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes of Portugal.
Marc Atkins: Andel Di Maria of Argentina in action with Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes of Portugal.
Marc Atkins: Bruno Alves of Portugal looks on as Andel Di Maria of Argentina falls.
Marc Atkins: Bruno Alves of Portugal looks on as Andel Di Maria of Argentina falls.

United’s on-loan Portuguese trickster, Nani, was the culprit behind the challenge that downed the club’s new record signing, with the Argentinian’s downing coming shortly after news of a nasty injury to Daley Blind while on international duty.

Marc Atkins: Referee, Martin Atkinson shows a yellow card to Joao Moutinho of Portugal.
Marc Atkins: Referee, Martin Atkinson shows a yellow card to Joao Moutinho of Portugal.

Without the glamour of Messi and Ronaldo, regardless of how wise their disappearing acts may have been, the clash failed to ignite and provide the brilliance fans had paid to see.

It was eventually settled by substitute Raphael Guerreiro, who latched on the end of a low delivery from Ricardo Quaresma on the right flank to stoop, dive and head home the winner. It finished 1-0.

Simon Stacpoole: A general view of Celtic Park in the day.
Simon Stacpoole: A general view of Celtic Park in the day.

The last game of Simon Stacpoole’s week came in Scotland, and back up at Celtic Park where England travelled to play the Auld Enemy on their own home turf.

Simon Stacpoole: Tributes to Nathan McSeveney, the Scotland fan who died following their match against the Republic of Ireland, are laid outside Celtic Park.
Simon Stacpoole: Tributes to Nathan McSeveney, the Scotland fan who died following their match against the Republic of Ireland, are laid outside Celtic Park.

Simon Stacpoole Wayne Rooney of England.

Simon Stacpoole: Scotland fans stand for a minute's applause in memory of Nathan McSeveney, the Scotland fan who died following their match against the Republic of Ireland.
Simon Stacpoole: Scotland fans stand for a minute’s applause in memory of Nathan McSeveney, the Scotland fan who died following their match against the Republic of Ireland.

Prior to kick off, fans paid their respects to Nathan McSeveney, who died after falling at the stadium on the night of the previous match against the Republic of Ireland. A minute’s applause was also observed before the action got under way.

Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England turns around to wait for his teammates to join him for their team group photo.
Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England turns around to wait for his teammates to join him for their team group photo.

Strangely, though the atmosphere from the fans was even more aggressive than the Ireland match, Scotland appeared unable to lift themselves in front of their fans against the English.

Simon Stacpoole: England manager Roy Hodgson greets Scotland boss Gordon Strachan before kick-off.
Simon Stacpoole: England manager Roy Hodgson greets Scotland boss Gordon Strachan before kick-off.
Simon Stacpoole: Scotland's former First Minister Alex Salmond.
Simon Stacpoole: Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond.

And to their credit, Hodgson’s side enjoyed a far more productive and positive first half than the opening 45 minutes that they suffered through against Slovenia.

Simon Stacpoole: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of England scores their 1st goal.
Simon Stacpoole: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of England scores their 1st goal.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain opened the scoring after 32 minutes, getting on the end of a clever pass by Jack Wilshere to send his fellow Arsenal man in on goal. Scotland 0-1 England.

Simon Stacpoole: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of England gives the thumbs up.
Simon Stacpoole: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of England gives the thumbs up.

A second goal came soon after the start of the second half, this time through captain Rooney who overtook Jimmy Greaves to become England’s third highest ever goalscorer on 45 goals.

Simon Stacpoole: Gary Cahill of England gets a header in on goal.
Simon Stacpoole: Gary Cahill of England gets a header in on goal.

The United forward made the most of his recent return to the main striker role for his country by capping off another well-worked move by Wilshere.

Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England.
Simon Stacpoole: Wayne Rooney of England.

His 46th goal wasn’t long behind either, but first Scotland had to get themselves on the score sheet through Andrew Robertson, who pulled one back on the 83 minute mark.

Simon Stacpoole: Andrew Robertson of Scotland scores.
Simon Stacpoole: Andrew Robertson of Scotland scores.

Rooney responded in a flash to this glimpse of a potential Scottish resurgence to steam up to the other end of the field to grab his second of the game and England’s third.

Simon Stacpoole: Danny Welbeck of England.
Simon Stacpoole: Danny Welbeck of England.

In the end, it felt like a routine win, won through a routine performance against a Scotland team that failed to show off their strengths.

Simon Stacpoole: Grant Hanley of Scotland turns England No. 9 Danny Welbeck.
Simon Stacpoole: Grant Hanley of Scotland turns England No. 9 Danny Welbeck.

With another batch of international fixtures over and done with, now it’s time to look forward to the return of the club competitions, and the Premier League this weekend.

Offside is the UK’s leading independent sports photography agency, home to an extensive collection of classic World Cup pictures and images from across the world of sport. Explore Offside’s unique library at www.welloffside.com.

Follow Offside on Twitter at @welloffside.

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Author: gregianjohnson

Football writer for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Mirror, Squawka and VICE amongst others. Follow me on Twitter at @gregianjohnson.

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