Iceland, the smallest World Cup 2018 nation with less than 335,000 inhabitants managed to earn a well-deserved point against 2014 runners-up Argentina on Saturday.
Their army of fans who descended on Moscow’s Spartak stadium, had every reason to celebrate the draw with their famous Thunderclap, as their team’s heroic defense helped to neutralize the Albiceleste attack led by Barcelona superstar Leo Messi.
BEFORE THE GAME
The path to their Group D opening match had been more troublesome for the South American giants, who only secured their place at the World Cup in their last qualifying game against Ecuador. Iceland by contrast, confidently won their UEFA qualification group leaving Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey and Finland in their wake. Coming into this encounter, the two-time World Cup champions were widely considered to be favorites.
One of the reasons for making the Argentinian team’s victory more likely was the statistics showed they had won their opening match at their last six World Cup’s. Another reason, and far more convincing, is the names of the world-class talents in the squad, such as Sergio Aguero (Manchester City FC), Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain FC), Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain (both from Juventus FC).
However, the focus from the international audience ahead of the game was centred on Messi.
The tournament in Russia is the fourth World Cup for the 30-year-old striker, who made his first tournament appearance against Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. He scored his debut goal after just 13 minutes after appearing on the pitch.
Football is a short career, which, in all probability means that the Russia World Cup could be the last for the Argentinian star. He still lacks a major international victory to convince the sceptics, who dispute his status amongst the legends of the game - similar to Pele and Maradona, who led their national teams to the title.
It seemed like Messi could not be more motivated ahead of the game, following the hat-trick scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, another phenomenal player of our time, during Friday night’s encounter in Sochi where Portugal and Spain shared a 3-3 thriller. This demanded a response from his long time rival.
Asked about his plan to stop Messi, Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson at a press conference before the game said that he would not man-mark Messi on the pitch.
"I don't have any magic formula [to stop Messi]. Everybody has tried everything against him, and he always manages to score. He is one of the best players in the world. We will do it like everything we do – together, helping each other, as a team," Hallgrimsson, who practises dentistry when is not managing his team, said.
WATER COULD NOT BREAK THE MOUNTAIN
Hallgrimsson’s plan worked perfectly from the start of the game. While Argentina dominated possession, Iceland’s defense deprived their attackers of space. Such a tenacious defense required extraordinary moves to break them down. However, Aguero was up to the task. He took the ball from Marcus Rojo, turned sharply before finishing with a classy left-footed shot in the 19th minute.
Only four minutes later, Alfred Finnbogason, who plays his club football with Augsburg FC, equalized and in the process scored his country’s first World Cup goal after Willy Caballero failed to collect the ball after a cross-come-shot from Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Argentina could only muster a few opportunities to crack open Iceland’s defensive wall, but the best was wasted in the 64th minute.
Messi curled a perfect cross for Maxi Meza who was fouled by Hordur Magnusson. However, the penalty by Argentina’s captain was at a comfortable height for Hannes Thor Halldorsson, who guessed right and palmed the ball away.
The game ended in a draw, however, for Iceland it was rather like a victory.
“It's kind of a big milestone for this team, this is the first time we have played at the World Cup finals… It was a game we knew how it would be played, they would have possession 60 or 70 percent of the time. I think we played our defense brilliantly, the boys should get all the credit for both organization and hard work in the game against world-class players,” Hallgrimsson said at a post-match press conference.