MOSCOW -- Three quick thoughts in Argentina 1-1 Iceland in Group D at the World Cup on Saturday.
1. Iceland gain valuable point as Messi disappoints
Iceland have made a habit of pulling off shock results in recent years, and while they didn't come away with a victory in this case, the draw amounts to another impressive effort, one that could prove valuable indeed as the rest of the group shakes out.
There was always going to be a strong impulse to see if Lionel Messi could match the hat trick heroics of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo from Friday night. But this was bound to be a very different type of match given Iceland's penchant for sitting back and waiting for opportunities to counter.
So it proved. Neither Messi nor his teammates impressed. Messi in fact had an absolutely miserable afternoon. That said, huge credit is due to Iceland for sticking to their game plan, staying compact in defence, and doing plenty to frustrate their opponents. The goalkeeping of Hannes Thor Halldorsson proved immense throughout, with his penalty save from Messi the best of a series of impressive stops.
Argentina started out showing a considerable amount of patience, combined with sudden changes in tempo. But the favorites received a massive scare in the 10th minute. A sloppy pass from Marcos Rojo created a melee in the Argentine box. The ball eventually fell to Birkir Bjarnason, only for him to put his shot wide with goal gaping.
Argentina were soon back controlling the game, and went ahead in the 19th minute. Rojo played a ball into Sergio Aguero, who evaded the attentions of Ragnar Sigurdsson on the turn and buried his shot past Halldorsson.
The expectation at that point was that Argentina would build on their lead, but Iceland were soon level. Argentina failed to clear their lines and after one attack, the ball eventually fell to Gylfi Sigurdsson. His shot went through the legs of Rojo, was saved by Willy Caballero, but Alfred Finnbogason was first to pounce on the rebound and the score was level.
The goal gave Iceland considerable belief, and they soon settled into the match a bit more. Sigurdsson created a chance for himself just before halftime, but Caballero was there to save the attempt and this time Argentina were able to clear.
Minutes into the second half Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli had seen enough and brought on the more attack-minded Ever Banega for Lucas Biglia. The switch didn't do all that much to change the game given Argentina's previous level of domination, but they soon had a glorious chance to go ahead in the 64th minute, when Maxi Meza was felled in the box by Hordor Magnusson. Messi stepped up to take the spot kick, but the placement was at the perfect height to allow Halldorsson to make a diving save to his right.
Argentina later had another penalty shout in the 77th minute when substitute Cristian Pavon appeared to be hauled down by Birkir Saevarsson, but referee Szymon Marciniak declined to sanction the Iceland defender.
Messi nearly found a late winner, but his curling effort in the 81st minute was just wide. Pavon threatened as well, but his effort was brilliantly saved by Halldorsson in the Iceland goal. A final free kick from Messi went straight into the wall in stoppage time, capping off a miserable day.
2. Questions about Argentina abound
Let's face it, this was an inauspicious start to the tournament for Messi and the Albiceleste. For the entirety of the Messi era, the question wasn't so much how he would perform, but would he get the help needed. On the day, neither delivered.
The answer to this query usually focused on the attacking side of the ball. You had to go back to late 2016 to find the last time an Argentine forward other than Messi had scored in a competitive fixture.
Aguero showed some hints he might be part of the solution with his first-half strike. One could argue that Sigurdsson shouldn't have allowed so much space to Aguero in the box, but there's no doubting the sharpness of the Argentine's turn or the power of his finish. Aguero also was doing plenty of dirty work, tracking back defensively and aiding his team's attack with his hold-up play. So long as Aguero stays healthy (a considerable "if" given his history), there's every reason to think he'll stay in the lineup.
But defensively, Argentina looked a mess at times, despite controlling play for long stretches. During his pregame news conference, Argentina coach Sampaoli said he picked Rojo and Nicolas Otamendi in defence and Javier Mascherano and Biglia in midfield because of the quality of their passing. But Rojo looked very suspect with his distribution in his own third. His error nearly gifted Iceland a goal early, only for Bjarnason to squander the chance. Rojo and Otamendi also struggled at times to deal with Iceland's direct play, and as a consequence, Iceland were able to create some chances.
As for Messi, the tournament is by no means over for him, but performances like this will do little to ease the pressure. Croatia and Nigeria are bound to pose challenges of their own. Simply put, he'll need to step up.
3. Iceland continue to capture the neutrals' hearts
Iceland's tactical approach may look simple, but it's still incredibly effective. There were moments when Argentina appeared to have some promising attacks only for Iceland's collective defending -- aided in no small part by the return of Aron Gunnarsson -- to shut the door.
In attack Iceland did plenty to test Argentina and even enjoyed some good spells of possession as the game progressed. If there was one complaint it was that Iceland at times were a little too content to clear the ball when it looked like a potential counterattack was on. Sharpening up that aspect of their game will make them even more of a danger as the tournament progresses.
But overall, manager Heimer Hallgrimsson will be delighted with the performance of his side, who delivered a typically rugged effort, and secured a result that group rivals Nigeria and Croatia will find difficult to match. Of course, if Halldorsson continues to play like he did here, Iceland will be tough to beat.
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