Messi! Messi! Everyone was calling for the Argentinian global star to respond to Cristiano Ronaldo’s bullying debut and his three goals. Underdog Iceland looked like a comfortable test on paper, yet the hero of the day turned out to be Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, who saved a penalty from La Pulce and led his side to a stunning 1-1 tie in the opening match of World Cup Pool D.
All this under the vigil eye of Diego Maradona, comfortably seated on the stands of Otkritie Arena in Moscow, smoking a cigar despite a no smoking sign clearly displayed right behind him. Dieguito make some news even when he is far from the football pitch. All it takes for him is lighting a cigarette to cast his overwhelming shadow over his supposed successor, as Messi was struggling on the pitch to make something out of his confused and disorganized team.
On the other hand, you cannot but feel sympathetic with Iceland, the newest World Cup fairy tale. A team that slowly made their way up to the football elite, supported by those fans who look like Vikings and animate the games with their geysir dance and its rhythmed “Uh!,” all coming from a country whose entire population could likely fit into the biggest football stadium.
The first chance of the day was for the Icelandic, with Birkir Bjarnason sending the ball not far from Argentina’s left post, shooting almost from the penalty spot. But then Argentina put their head ahead as expected, even if the lead came from an isolate episode. Defender Marcos Rojo tried a long-range shot, with ball being captured by Sergio Aguero into Iceland’s box. El Kun quickly turned around, and put it into the top left corner of Iceland’s goal with a sharp shot.
However, the South American lead didn’t last long, as only three minutes later striker Alfred Finnbogason made it even for the Nordics. Gylfi Sigurdsson produced a low pass from the right side, goalie Wilfredo Caballero anticipated Bjarnason’s tap in – but still the ball ended on Iceland’s Number 11 foot for an easy conversion.
In the 44th minute, it was again Sigurdsson to scare the Argentinians, forcing Caballero to dive on dive on his right to save an insidious shot, and the first half surprisingly ended with Iceland pushing more than their more famous opponents.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli changed his lineup, sending in Ever Banega for a disappointing Lucas Biglia eight minutes into the second half, hoping to shake up his two-man central midfield line which was failing to generate any spark. The former Inter player had at least the merit of procuring the penalty that could have made Argentina’s afternoon less gloomy.
Messi caught Banega into Iceland’s box with a perfectly timed lob-pass, and defender Hordur Magnusson clumsily crashed on him – a pretty bad idea, in a World Cup where referees have been prone to easily go for the penalty solution so far. However, the 5-time Ballon d’Or confirmed his aversion for the penalty kick spot, delivering a weak and not-so-angled shot that gave Hannes Halldorsson a story to tell his grandchildren.
With supplies from the back failing to reach him, La Pulce progressively started to play closer to the midfield line, and tried to take the matter in his hands, with multiple shots from outside the box. He did manage to scare the Icelandic on a couple of occasions, and in the 78th minute it took all of defender Birkir Saevarsson’s experience to block him, when Javier Mascherano had finally managed to reach him with a good cross.
Sampaoli played his last cards and put in Gonzalo Higuain – 8 minutes only for Juventus’ top striker – and Cristian Pavon. From a shot by Boca Juniors’ number 22 came Argentina last chance, but this was definitely Halldorsson’s day. The Randers FC goalie flew to parry the shot back and give his small country their first, historical, World Cup point, despite the last minutes turning into a besiege, and a 72% ball possession in favor of the South Americans.
But this is how Argentina is, and we knew that: A stunning attacking force, which can take the luxury of leaving home Serie A top striker Mauro Icardi, implanted on a shaking defensive line, and an eternally unaccomplished midfield. Plus Leo Messi, a supposedly added value whom however continues to suffer from World Cup anguishes.
The road is still long, but his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo is already up there – with three goals scored.
June 16, 2018 – World Cup Group Stage Pool D
SCORERS: 19′ Aguero (A), 23′ Finnbogason (I)
|ARGENTINA (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Mascherano, Biglia (54’ Banega); Meza (84’ Higuain), Messi, Di Maria (75’ Pavon); Aguero (Guzman, Armani, Mercado, Ansaldi, Fazio, Acuna, Perez, Lo Celso, Dybala, Pavon) Coach: Sampaoli|
|ICELAND (4-4-2): Halldorsson; Saevarsson, Arnason, R. Sigurdsson, Magnunsson; J. Gudmundsson 64’ Gislason), Gunnarson (75’ A. Skulason), Halfredsson, Bjarnason; G. Sigurdsson, Finnbogason (89’ Sigurdason) (Schram, Runarsson, Fridjonsson, A. Gudmundsson, Ingason, Eyjolfsson, O. Skulason, Traustason, Bodvarsson) Coach: Hallgrimsson|
REFEREE: Marciniak (Poland)
NOTES: Attendance: 44190; No Yellow Cards; Extra Time: 1st Half 1′, 2nd Half 5′