Now you know why Argentina barley made it to the World Cup. Iceland played the match of their lives to earn a one all draw with Argentina in Group D.
Argentina stinks. Their defense and numerous errors cost them big time.
The Guardian Barney Rona: “With 64 minutes gone on a tight, bruising afternoon Argentina finally seemed to have found a break in a game in which their revered attack struggled to find its gears against an excellent Iceland team.
The score was already 1-1, as it would finish. Iceland were holding steady. With a long pass from the left Sergio Agüero was suddenly in space in the area, and sent tumbling by a collision with Hordur Magnusson. The penalty was given. Half of the stadium leapt up, phones raised as Lionel Messistepped up to take it, breath drawn ready to yowl and cheer as the ball hit the net.
Or perhaps not. Messi’s kick was terrible, too close to Hannes Halldorsson, who saved well, guessing the right way and palming the ball far enough from goal. In the stands there was a gawping sense of shock, heads cradled, jaws dropped.
What an astonishingly brilliant moment, though, for Halldorsson, who six years ago directed Iceland’s entry to the Eurovision song contest, but who has now saved a penalty from Messi in front of a few hundred million people, not to mention his future grand-kids, great grand-kids and anyone else who meets him for the next sixty years with an active YouTube feed.
There was controversy a quarter of an hour later when Cristian Pavón went down in the penalty area. There seemed to be contact from Birkir Már Sævarsson but the referee was having none of it and did not refer it to VAR.
And so Iceland held on in this Group D opener to take an entirely deserved point from their first ever World Cup game. This is a rise that has been pegged out in moments, from the defeats of Holland and England to the extended glory of qualification for Russia 2018. Here was another one, a new plateau for the smallest nation ever to get to the tournament. Albeit against an Argentina team that pressed hard, had most of the possession, and might easily have won the game, but which also presented its own weaknesses to the world.
For long period the general preconceptions about these two teams seemed to be confirmed. Iceland were willing, deft on the ball and completely unafraid. In between its best moments in attack, Argentina came across like a team that had forgotten its trousers on the way out, dressed in full ceremonial regalia on top, but with its long-johns flapping at the back.
This was Willy Caballero’s first competitive international at the age of 36. It might well be his last if Franco Armani has been looking smart in training. There was a fumble for Iceland’s goal, one horrible attempt at jazzed-up possession play from the back, and a first-half shot that was palmed away with all the agility of a dead tree falling over in a high wind.
Before kick-off on a dazzlingly bright Moscow day the Spartak Arena was gripped with a wonderful rolling surge of noise. Argentina’s travelling fans are present in the usual city-scale numbers. Here they created the usual warm, celebratory noise, a mess of chants and cheers and soaring balladry that manages to be both ferociously inspiring and also somehow devoid of menace.
Nobody quite knew how Argentina’s players would hit their stride here. Instead of playing friendlies Argentina have trained with unusual urgency, Sampaoli grooving his players like a club side. The issue with this team is simply the right jiggle of the switches, finding a way of channelling without clogs or snags the benefits of pure, unfettered Messi power.
The sight of Messi’s huge, impassive ginger-bearded face on the big screen as the teams walked out drew the first ear-splitting whistle from the main Albiceleste end. Heimir Hallgrimsson had been phlegmatic as ever on facing Argentina’s own universe-boss level playmaker. “I don’t have a magic formula,” Hallgrimsson shrugged on the eve of this game.
In the event Iceland packed the midfield, with Gylfi Sigurdsson, just returned from injury, as a No 10 in possession, a No 8 without the ball. And throughout they played Messi supremely well.
Early on Iceland were brusque and bruising. Messi was hauled over the first time he picked up the ball in a pocket of space. At the other end a huge punted long pass from back to front put Alfred Finnbogason for a shot over the bar and from the ensuing sweep-keeper horror show of a goal-kick Birki Bjarnason scuffed past the post on the run when he looked certain to score.
All the while Messi thrummed around in the low gears, with Aaron Gunnarsson always quick to intrude on his personal space. With 16 minutes gone there was a sudden Messi swerve to the left and a powerful shot that Hannes Halldorsson pumped away with both fists. And four minutes later came the reminder that Messi isn’t the only world class footballer in this team.
Nobody works a pocket of space quite like Agüero, a player with legs so rubbery he can spring through 180 degree circle in the time it takes you to think about raising your left foot. Here he took the ball in the area and pirouetted away from Ragnar Sigurdsson. No back-lift was required. With swish of air the ball was in the top corner.
Even before they levelled the scores Iceland had demonstrated their own cutting edge, and also the brittleness of this Argentina defence. Alfred Finnbogason’s equaliser was the product of excellent Icelandic pressing, drawing slackness down the right and that fumble from Caballero as the cross from Gylfi Sigurdsson came in. Iceland’s centre-forward moved quicker than the swamp-bound defenders around him to poke the ball home.
Iceland sat back. Argentina pressed without any real sense of edge, finding little space. There was shout for a penalty as the ball bounced up from close range and hit the hand of the sliding Ragnar Sigurdsson. Sampaoli capered and fumed and waggled his arms on the touchline. But Sigurdsson was guilty of little more than possessing arms in the usual place arms tend to be.
For long periods after the break Argentina were ponderous in central midfield against opponents who dropped deep. Up ahead Messi was pushed right to the fringes, handled with remarkable certainty and disincline by this Icelandic midfield and defence. Ángel Di María provided little effective width. On the right Eduardo Salvio made good ground at times. But there was a lack of snap, of easy rhythms in possession. Iceland were able simply to hold their ground.
With 53 minutes gone Sampaoli shifted the weather in his team, bringing on the more dextrous Ever Banega for Lucas Biglia. Banega is a lovely midfielder. But Iceland gave him more of the same, crowding in well-drilled pairs, shutting off his angles. There were chances, shots that whistled just wide, and that missed Messi penalty. But Iceland were cool throughout, their point welcomed with a huge Nordic cheer.
No doubt some will now draw an unavoidable and indeed deeply unflattering parallel with Cristiano Ronaldo’s wonderful hat-trick last night, an extreme contrast with Messi’s impotence here. That struggle for tournament fluency continues. But this afternoon belonged above all to the men from the volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic, whose extraordinary world tour isn’t showing any sign of losing its momentum just yet.