Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi met Pope Francis in the buildup to Argentina's clash with Italy, but will miss the match through injury. Reuters

An eye-catching friendly between international heavyweights Italy and Argentina has been robbed of some star dust with both Lionel Messi and Mario Balotelli forced to pull out of their respective squads through injury. Messi is still struggling with a thigh strain and has traveled back to Catalunya as he looks to get fit before Barcelona’s opening game of the Primera Division season on Sunday. Milan striker Balotelli, meanwhile, suffered a knee injury in training.

While the match may have been set-up as a welcome for Argentinian Pope Francis, it also represents an important test for two sides expected to be among the contenders at next year’s World Cup. Italy look virtual certainties to be in Brazil as they sit four points clear of Bulgaria in their qualification group. And coach Cesare Prandelli will be looking for further progress following some mixed performances at this summer’s Confederations Cup.

Without Balotelli, Prandelli is likely to call upon Argentina-born striker Pablo Osvaldo to lead the attack. Fitness wise, Italy may not be at their best, with the new Serie A season still 10 days away. That may not prove all that important, however, with much of Argentina’s squad now plying their trade in Italy. That is certainly true going forward, where coach Alejandro Sabella can call upon the talents of new Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain, Inter Milan’s Rodrigo Palacio, and talented Roma forward Erik Lamela.

Argentina have also all-but secured their place in Brazil. Sitting three points clear at the top of a grueling South American qualifying section and crucially with a nine-point buffer in the qualifying spots, it would take something extraordinary to deny them a berth. Argentina can secure their place when they travel to face Paraguay next month.

Italy (probable)

G: Buffon

D: Maggio, Bonucci, Chiellini, Antonelli

M: Florenzi, Pirlo, Marchisio

Candreva, Giaccherini

F: Osvaldo

Argentina (probable)

G: Andujar

D: Zabaleta, Garay, Fernandez, Rojo

M: Maxi Rodriguez, Biglia, Mascherano, Di Maria

F: Palacio, Higuain

Prediction: Despite the absences of Messi and Balotelli, there will still be plenty of talent on show at the Stadio Olimpico to get excited about. Prandelli has shown himself to be extremely tactically flexible and could once again go for a 4-3-2-1 formation that he utilized at the Confederations Cup. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see how Argentina’s defense, the weakest area of their side, copes with the quality out wide of Antonio Candreva and the intelligent movement Of Emanuele Giaccherini. Still, Argentina have enough quality going forward and an entertaining draw could be on the cards.

Italy 2-2 Argentina

Where to watch: The international friendly will kick-off from the Stadio Olimpico in Rome at 2.30 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Univision Deportes. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here.