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sports WORLD CUP: RUSSIA 2018

Argentina held 1-1 by Iceland in World Cup opener

Lionel Messi missed a penalty for the Albiceleste as underdogs hold Argentina to a 1-1 draw in Moscow.

Saturday 16 June, 2018
Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson saves a penalty attempt by Argentina's Lionel Messi during the Group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow.
Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson saves a penalty attempt by Argentina's Lionel Messi during the Group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Foto:AP-Rebecca Blackwell

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The Albiceleste's World Cup debut in Russia finished today with a 1-1 draw with Iceland.

Lionel Messi fluffed his lines, missing a penalty as Iceland held Argentina to a draw after France benefitted from the first use of the Video Assistant Referee system in the tournament's history.

Just a day after his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo scored a sensational hat-trick to secure a 3-3 draw for Portugal against Spain, Messi had a golden chance to write his own headlines.

Argentina's national team captain stepped up to the spot with the teams locked at 1-1 in Moscow's Spartak Stadium after Rúrik Gíslason was adjudged to have brought down Maximiliano Meza in the 63rd minute.

But Hannes Þór Halldórsson guessed correctly and palmed away the Argentine skipper's side-footed effort and, despite intense pressure, Iceland held on for a famous draw.

Sergio Agüero scored the opener for the two-time world champions in the 19th minute but his strike was almost immediately cancelled out by Alfreð Finnbogason.

It was another extraordinary result in the history of Iceland, who famously dumped England out of Euro 2016. The island nation of 330,000 is the smallest country ever to qualify for the finals but emphatically showed they can mix it with the heavyweights.

Messi is yet to win a major international tournament and time is running out with his 31st birthday looming.

It was Messi's fourth missed penalty in his last seven attempts for Argentina and Barcelona.

Possession

The small Nordic island nation's team created several first-half chances despite having only 22 percent possession, and pushed back Argentina's waves of second-half attacks.

Messi had a final chance to redeem his team with the final kick of the game, but his free kick from 25 yards failed to clear a solid Iceland defensive wall.

At the end, Messi retreated alone into the centre circle with his head bowed and hands on his knees.

Before trailing, Iceland could have taken the lead but Birkir Bjarnason side-footed a shot wide of goal when Caballero was exposed.

That chance came in a nervous ninth minute for Argentina's defence, which seemed unsettled by Iceland's strength and their own unease with loose balls in the penalty area.

No Iceland defender was at fault for failing to stop Agüero's goal. The forward executed a classy spin move to create his chance when a miscued shot by Marcos Rojo arrived at his feet near the penalty spot.

It was a finish worthy of Diego Maradona, who was watching in the VIP section at Spartak Stadium. The FIFA ambassador was puffing a large cigar – despite smoking being banned in all World Cup venues.

Argentina fans booed and whistled when the giant stadium screen showed that Halldorsson was man of the match. But his faultless handling and excellent shot-stopping was deserving of the accolade.

In contrast, Caballero caused uneasy moments for his defense in the first half.

Iceland also protected Halldórsson well with swarming running and tackling to shut down Messi and Argentina's attacking lanes.

VAR steps in

In the first match of the day, France launched their World Cup campaign with victory against Australia as VAR was used for the first time at a World Cup.

The Group C match in Kazan was goalless when Antoine Griezmann went down after a tackle in the second half. Uruguayan referee Andrés Cunha did not award a penalty but after viewing the VAR footage, ruled it was a spot-kick and Griezmann gave France a 1-0 lead.

Minutes later the Socceroos drew level through a penalty of their own, although this time it was awarded by the referee, with Mile Jedinak coolly beating Hugo Lloris.

But Pogba won a tight match for the 1998 champions when his shot bounced over the line off the crossbar in the 81st minute.

VAR has been used to varying degrees of success in Serie A and the German Bundesliga, while FIFA used the system at the Confederations Cup in Russia last year.

The technology is used in what are considered "game-changing" situations such as a goal, penalty or red card, and can also be employed to help referees with cases of mistaken identity.

"Luckily for us the system was there," Griezmann said. "When the referee went to see the video, I thought it was a penalty. I was already thinking about how I would take it."

France coach Didier Deschamps said the Euro 2016 finalists must improve.

"It's the World Cup, it's the first match. But, yes, we must do better, and we can do better," he said.

- AFP

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