Of course Iceland’s Cinderella story continued all the way into its World Cup debut.
The tiny country – with a population of 334,000, it’s the smallest ever to qualify for the tournament – held Lionel Messi and two-time champion Argentina to a 1-1 draw at Spartak Stadium in Moscow in the Group D opener for both teams.
It was a fair result.
Iceland, which also beat England in the knockout stage of the European Championships two years ago, only had 22 percent possession in its first World Cup appearance. They were outshot 27-8 (and 7-2 on target). But they also showed no fear of their far more decorated foes, took advantage of their biggest opportunity, and survived what should have been a fatal mistake when keeper Hannes Halldorsson stopped Messi’s second-half penalty.
Messi's penalty is SAVED!
Halldorsson comes up big to keep Iceland level with 25 minutes left. pic.twitter.com/OpLTEgyoRA
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 16, 2018
Messi’s World Cup misery continues
What many believe could be the 30-year-old’s final World Cup got off to an inauspicious start.
One of the main storylines entering the tournament was if Messi could haul his team to the podium and cement his legacy as the greatest player the sport has ever seen.
But in his first major tournament game since he missed in a penalty shootout in Argentina’s eventual loss to Chile in the final of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, Messi again missed from the spot. And while the error didn’t cost his team a title this time around, it did result in the first opening match draw for Argentina at a World Cup since 1990.
That team was led by Diego Maradona, of course, and it ended up reaching a final. The competition is far from over for this Argentina squad. Still, Maradona’s presence continues to literally loom over Messi when he pulls on the famous light-blue stripes; The 1986 World Cup winner was in attendance on Saturday.
The pressure is considerably higher on Messi and his mates now, with an already-tricky tilt against a talented Croatian side approaching on Thursday.
Argentina’s backline worse than we thought?
Heading into Russia, the big question surrounding La Albiceleste was if their suspect defense would cost the 2014 runners-up a shot at the title. That concern proved justified nine minutes into the match, when defender Marcus Rojo and reserve goalkeeper Willy Caballero (starter Sergio Romero was injured just before the competition) passed themselves into trouble deep in their own end, only for Iceland midfielder Birkir Bjarnason to squander the ensuring chance with an off-target shot.
It was a sign of things to come. Iceland’s goal arrived following an amateurish-looking sequence of so-called defending. First Caballero whiffed on Gylfi Sigurdsson’s cross. Then Caballero spilled a shot by Sigurdsson while no less than four Argentineans failed to cover Iceland striker Alfreo Finnbogason, who easily fired home the equalizer.
It’s clear that Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli has a major problem in the back. Not only will he have to rebuild his defenders’ confidence after the shambolic performance, he must also simultaneously coax far more out of his attackers if they are to have any chance of realizing their championship ambitions.
Aguero’s goal one of few bright spots for Argentina
The Manchester City striker has been one of the most prolific forwards in global soccer for the better part of a decade now, yet somehow he’s never really been a go-to player for his country. Aguero didn’t start in the 2014 World Cup or 2016 Copa America finals, and he didn’t score once during qualifying for Russia.
It was therefore somewhat surprising that Sampaoli went with Aguero over Gonzalo Higuain. Aguero repaid his boss’ faith, however, creating his own chance with some slick footwork inside the box to open the scoring in the 23rd minute.
Argentina looked well on its way to a win at that point. Instead, it turned out to be the brightest moment of an otherwise forgettable day. And while the strike might be enough for Aguero to keep his place against the Croats, he and the rest of his teammates will have to play an awful lot better to avoid a must-win third game against Nigeria on June 26.
Iceland contines to impress
One of the best stories in sports keeps getting better. Iceland was quietly on the rise for a decade before narrowly missing out on a trip to Brazil 2014. Four years on, there’s no question that Iceland belongs on the biggest stage.
Getting there wasn’t an accident.
The country’s embrace of coaching education (Iceland has more licensed youth coaches per capita than any nation on earth) and investment in facilities that can be used year round (which is necessary because of an often-punishing climate), combined with its players all-for-one ethos, has resulted in a team capable of staying in a game with anyone.
And after earning a point in its opener, nobody should be shocked if Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side manages to lock in a spot in the knockout stage. After all, beating Nigeria on Friday could put Iceland though to the second round before even meeting Croatia, the team most thought its biggest threat, in the group finale.
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