Iceland expose Argentina’s feet of clay

Lionel Messi misses penalty as Iceland eke out famous draw in Moscow

 Hannes Halldorsson of Iceland saves  Lionel Messi’s penalty during the 1-1 draw in Moscow.  Photograph: EPA

Hannes Halldorsson of Iceland saves Lionel Messi’s penalty during the 1-1 draw in Moscow. Photograph: EPA

 

Argentina 1 Iceland 1

Sometimes you hit a wall, and Iceland make a bigger wall than most. The trials of Lionel Messi in the national shirt of Argentina have carried at least into the opening game of the World Cup in Russia. On Friday evening down in Sochi, Cristiano Ronaldo conjured up two priceless goals and a penalty kick in what was an immortal hat-trick against Spain.

Here in Moscow, it was through the looking glass: Messi had his penalty saved by the redoubtable Hannes Halldorsson and then watched as his 94th minute swerving free crashed into the huge defensive ice floe that had obscured his view all afternoon. The little genius seemed to age a little in those seconds after the final whistle, standing alone on centre-field, his head bowed as up in the stands, the small Icelandic army issued their defiant Hu! In their world cup debut, the tiny Nordic country had lived with and scored against one of the most storied football nations on earth. They had kept the genius bottled up. Of course they celebrated.

“It was a game that we already knew how it would be played, “said Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland’s endlessly pragamatic coach. “They would have possession 70 per cent of the time and I think we played our defence brilliantly. Against world class players it is difficult to defend for 90 minutes. People say: why do you celebrate a point like you have won the game? Well just wait and see when we win a game: that will be a celebration.”

It was true that Argentina had enjoyed the lion’s share of possession - 74 per cent - and not much else. But even that statistic was only notionally true: when Iceland had the football, it spent so much time in the sky over Spartak that it could well apply for air miles from Aeroflot. What suited Iceland best was those moments when neither side was entirely in control, the ball pinging about from boot to head and, ideally, as far away from the feet of Messi as possible.

It was their special brand of wilful anarchy that made the Argentines uncomfortable - a panicky bit of interplay between Wilfredo Caballero and Nicalos Tagliafico gave Birkir Bjarnason a golden chance after eight minutes and just before that, Alfred Finnbogason hammered onto the first of many long balls and struck a flash-shot of warning over Caballero’s crossbar.

Alfred Finnbogason scores Iceland’s goal. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Alfred Finnbogason scores Iceland’s goal. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

But for long periods, Iceland were content to play football without the ball. Messi wandered through what must, for him, have been a strange land for the afternoon: a Middle Earth populated by strapping Hordurs and Tragnars and Johanns: blond, fearsome, unbothered by nuance and descending on the iconic number 10 whenever he got the ball. He pushed deep; he roamed out to the left wing and he looked relieved when Sergio Aguero turned and struck a bullet of a left foot shot past Halldorsson during a rare moment of Icelandic slackness in the box for a 1-0 lead.

Argentina - and probably the world - expected the Icelanders to, you know, melt like ice caps etc . . . after that. And a glinting turn of menace from Messi - ghosting on to the ball, the sudden turn of speed and a stinging left foot shot - that hinted at a long afternoon for the tiny island. Instead, they promptly equalised in a rare burst of attacking enterprise, Gylifi Sigurdsson finding Alfred Finnbogason who hammered the ball home from close range. And then they closed ranks again.

Through all of this, Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina’s coach, strode the line in an increasingly anguished manner. Wearing skinny jeans, a blazer and a cream shirt, he looked like a man who had to rush off to an important dinner only to discover that his car wouldn’t start. When Messi’s 64th minute penalty was parried by Halldorrsson, Sampaoli looked resigned to his fate.

“I guess our game plan worked almost perfectly,” Halldorsson said. “I did some homework. This was a situation I knew could come up. It’s a long shot but I knew it could happen. I looked at a lot of penalties of Messi and I also looked at how I have been behaving in penalties.”

Argentina continued to probe and attack and Cristian Pavon made life awkward along Iceland’s left wing. But the South Americans had been battered by Iceland’s aerial bombardment: they couldn’t have made life any nastier up there had the attacked the ball wearing those patented horned helmets. One moment midway through the half symbolised the difference between the teams: a ball near the sideline, Eduardo Salvio neatly flicking it to himself only to turn into the big frame of Bjarnason. Salvio writhed on the ground, holding his thigh while Brarnason lumbered away having won a throw-in for his team.

Lionel Messi during the game. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Lionel Messi during the game. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The Scandinavians won a hundred small victories like this. Argentina - and Messi - kept trying, showing for the ball and somehow creating enough space to conjure up left and right footed shots through the impenetrable cover of white shirts. But he cut an increasingly weighted figure as the afternoon wore on.

“To evaluate and characterise his work is hard because was an uncomfortable match because Iceland were playing very defensively, blocking all the spaces,” Sampaoli said. “But we did all we could to. I know that Leo is very much committed to help Argentina for us to move forward.”

The underwhelming start will just add to the unimaginable burden of pressure on Argentina’s talisman. Diego Maradona was among his countrymen in the stands. All of Argentina must be wondering if and how the contemporary torch-carrier can make a World Cup tournament his own. As Messi shook hands with the big delighted Icelanders, the prospect of a late, glorious burst seemed more remote.

“It’s part of the past,” Sampaoli said resolutely of the game, the missed penalty and the heavy air of frustration that followed the huge Argentine support as they made their way downtown talking about their enigmatic hero. “We need to be strong now in the group and believe in ourselves.”

Argentina (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Meza (Higuain, 84 mins), Mascherano; Messi, Biglia (Banega, 54 mins), Di Maria (Pavon 75); Aguero.

Iceland (4-5-1): Halldorsson; Saevarsson, Arnason, R Sigurdsson, Magnusson; Gudmundsson (Gislason, 66 mins), Gunnarsson (Ari Freyr Skulason, 76 mins), G Sigurdsson, Hallfredsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason (Sigurdarson, 88 mins).

Referee: M Szymon (Pol)

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