Gonzalo Higuain Argentina
Gonzalo Higuan's goal in the 20th minute gave Argentina a lead they would never relinquish in a 2-1 friendly victory over Italy. Reuters

Even without superstar forward and captain Lionel Messi, Argentina proved they are a force in world competition with a 2-1 victory over Italy in an international friendly on Wednesday at Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Gonzalo Higuain got the scoring started in the 20th minute when he unleashed a powerful shot from just inside the penalty box to put Argentina on the board. The newly signed Napoli forward did an impressive job of dribbling to his right to create space for a strike that found its way past goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon.

The score remained 1-0 until the 49th minute, when Higuain found Ever Banega just outside the box. The Valencia midfielder would take one dribble to set up a right-footed strike that split Daniele De Rossi and Emanuele Giaccherini and flew past the outstretched arm of Buffon to extend Argentina’s lead.

Lorenzo Insigne would deliver an excellent shot of his own to get Italy back in the match. The Napoli left winger curled a gorgeous ball near the upper corner of the far post, off an assist from Roma’s Pablo Daniel Osvaldo. It marked Insigne’s first-ever goal for Italy.

Insigne’s strike was the only goal for an Italian side that had plenty of opportunities. Cesare Prandelli’s side took 18 shots, but just two were on goal. Italy also took 16 corner kicks, compared to Argentina’s two, and won the possession battle at 56 percent.

Italy could have perhaps used Mario Balotelli, who sat out the match with a knee injury. On Tuesday, Balotelli met privately with Pope Francis, who is an avid fan soccer fan from Argentina. According to USA Today, a Vatican spokesman said the 23-year-old, whose behavioral issues are well known, “looked ‘emotional’ after their conversation, but that the player declined to say what he discussed with Francis.”

Italy finished third in the Confederations Cup, and have a rather comfortable four-point lead over second-place Bulgaria in UEFA’s Group B of World Cup Qualifying. Italy host Bulgaria on Sept. 6.

Argentina are in first place in CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying after 13 matches. Alejandro Sabella’s side face Paraguay on Sept. 10 in Asuncion.