Buenos Aires Times

sports WORLD CUP: RUSSIA 2018

Albiceleste underwhelm as Icelandic wall holds firm in Moscow

After the match, captain Lionel Messi personally took the blame for the draw. But in truth, the real culprit was a collective effort that left a great deal to be desired across the pitch.

Sunday 17 June, 2018
Lionel Messi looks downbeat as Iceland's players celebrate, at the end of the Group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 World Cup, at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow.
Lionel Messi looks downbeat as Iceland's players celebrate, at the end of the Group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 World Cup, at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Foto:AP-Ricardo Mazalan

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The expression on Lionel Messi's face said it all.

After the final roll of the dice for Argentina, an ambitious free-kick perched at the feet of the little maestro, had crashed into Iceland's unyielding wall, Messi kicked the ball in anger at the sound of the final whistle. With that lasting image, the opening match of the Albiceleste's World Cup campaign had spluttered out, producing an underwhelming start and a share of the points that leaves the team facing an uphill battle in Russia.

If we must take just one lasting memory from the match, it will be that of a wall. Iceland's unsung heroes sought to repeat their heroics of the 2016 European Championships by forming an impenetrable obstacle in front of goalkeeper (and part-time film director) Hannes Þór Halldórsson, suffocating Argentina's attacking intentions with a sea of blue-clad bodies. Those distant descendants of the Viking colonists that first discovered the island of 300,000 inhabitants took their ancestors' teachings into account, setting up a near-unbreakable shield wall around the goal and inviting Jorge Sampaoli's men to do their worst.

That much was predictable even before kick-off; as was, unfortunately, the reaction of an Argentina team that prior to the World Cup had played together just once, a ceremonial friendly destruction of Haiti. The team looked hesitant and ponderous playing out from the back, a requisite of Sampaoli's style, and downright disastrous on the rare occasion that Iceland crossed the halfway line and put pressure on a defence that promises to give Argentina nightmares against more demanding opposition.

And while the vast majority of the game was played deep in the islanders' territory, a lack of penetration from a conservative midfield pairing of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia – a curiously negative choice considering that when Iceland did go forward, the middle of the pitch was completely bypassed in favour of long diagonal balls to the corners – was coupled with yet another disappointing display from Ángel Di María, who chased shadows for 75 painful minutes. All told, Argentina, the overwhelming favourites pre-match were unable to capitalise on their possession.

It came as no surprise, then, that it was a moment of individual rather than collective brilliance that opened the door. The one shock was the identity of said magician: Sergio Agüero, the striker who has been roughly treated in recent years by the national team's fans but who stepped into Messi's shoes for an instant to fire a left-footed strike into the net in spectacular fashion. Messi, meanwhile, peppered Halldórsson with 11 shots over the course of the game, a remarkable achievement considering the abundance of markers that accompanied his every move and the lack of reaction all around him to play off the star's other-worldly talents.

The lead was short-lived, as Argentina's back-line pushed down hard on the self-destruct button and proceeded to spend the rest of the match fruitlessly trying to recover that lost ground. Not until Cristian Pavón finally entered for the ineffectual Di María did the team begin to really test their dogged opponents – a lesson that came too late to take all three points in Moscow but which might just prove vital for the rest of the World Cup.

After the match, Messi took the blame personally for the draw - "The penalty was painful, I feel responsible,” he lamented at the final whistle – but in truth, the real culprit was a collective effort that left a great deal to be desired across the pitch.

Ultimately Sampaoli and his charges, Messi above all, paid the price for two weeks of disastrous preparations with a lack of clarity that was at times painful to watch. But there is still plenty of time to turn things around for Argentina's beleaguered warriors and dispel those memories of floundering at the mercy of Iceland's rock-hard shield wall.

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