Messi scores winner as Argentina beats Croatia 2-1

LONDON (AP) Lionel Messi scored the winner from the penalty spot as World Cup runner-up Argentina came from behind to beat Croatia 2-1 in a friendly on Wednesday.

Messi's 45th international goal came in the 57th minute after striker Sergio Aguero was judged to have been brought down by Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic when trying to round him. Messi, who was making his 96th appearance for his country, stroked the ball into the bottom right corner as Kalinic dived the wrong way.

Croatia had performed well until then, despite coach Niko Kovac picking a fairly inexperienced side compared to Argentina, a number of whom played in the 1-0 defeat to Germany in the World Cup final.

Playing at West Ham's ground in east London, Croatia took a deserved lead in the 11th minute when Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero parried the ball into the path of striker Anas Sharbini, who slotted home. Argentina slowly found its momentum with Aguero and Angel Di Maria both coming close to putting their team level.

It wasn't until the second half that Argentina drew level. Defender Christian Ansaldi equalized in the 49th minute after his shot from the edge of the penalty area was deflected past Kalinic by Aguero.

Carlos Tevez, who used to play for West Ham, came on to a rapturous reception when he replaced Aguero in the 62nd minute. He nearly put Argentina 3-1 ahead soon afterward when Messi threaded a perfect pass through the Croatia defense but Tevez's right-footed effort drifted just wide of the left post.

Tevez was playing for Argentina for the first time since the 2011 Copa America, with his recall following some strong displays this season for Juventus.

Argentina's new coach Gerardo Martino, who took over after the World Cup, heaped praise on Tevez and singled the striker out for the team's better second-half performance.

''We improved in the second half,'' he said. ''Tevez's involvement had something to do with that.''

Croatia's next match is a European Championship qualifier against Italy on Sunday in Rome. A number of the likely starting line-up against Italy stayed in the Croatian capital Zagreb to prepare for the match.

Croatia coach Kovac said his inexperienced team performed well and that the players could be counted on in the future.

''We can hold our heads high,'' Kovac said.

Argentina meets Portugal in a friendly at Manchester United's home ground, Old Trafford, next Tuesday.

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