Unlike his long-standing rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who put up a stunning show in Sochi the other night, Lionel Messi couldn’t be the inspiration for his side on Saturday.
In a game where he was expected to be the star of the show, he even missed a penalty.
Messi’s bid to win the World Cup and a first major title with Argentina began with a 1-1 draw against Iceland at the Spartak Stadium, a result that means the Albiceleste have to really improve themselves if they are to progress from a tough Group ‘D’ which also has Croatia and Nigeria.
Argentina huffed and puffed throughout the ninety minutes but Iceland, who were playing at this level for the very first time, proved to be an opposition too difficult to break down. Despite Sergio Aguero giving them the lead with a brilliantly taken effort, they were pinned back through Alfred Finnbogason’s leveller and despite having loads of possession, never really threatened a resolute Icelandic defence.
So confident was Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli about his team that he’d announced the starting XI a day prior to the game. Argentina had trained with that line-up for the last several days and it showed with their passing and movement at the start. Yet clear-cut chances were at a premium.
Nicolas Tagliafico twice headed wide from Messi’s free-kicks in the opening eight minutes. But then Iceland had two chances within the space of a minute. First Finnbogason shot high from a wide angle before Bjnir Bjarnason shot wide after a backpass had put Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero in a spot of bother.
Messi was dropping deep, trying to be an orchestrator. He even won a tackle. In in an open game that had Argentina controlling possession and Iceland picking their moments to attack, it was only a matter of time for the goal to come.
It came in the 19th minute. Marcos Rojo found Sergio Aguero inside the box and the Manchester City striker expertly held off a defender before he swiveled and sent an unstoppable shot past Hannes Halldorsson.
As good as Argentina were going forward, they were having problems at the back. And Iceland levelled just four minutes later. Caballero had blocked an attempt but Argentina couldn’t properly clear and the ball was pinged back into the box for Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson’s shot was saved but the rebound fell neatly for Fingaboson to tuck away. A thunderclap inside the Spartak; the first of this World Cup.
Sampaoli had put his trust in Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia to find the killer passes but it was evident that neither had the ability to break down the Icelandic wall. Messi was being forced to come back to try and be Argentina’s creator. Argentina were having to go backwards to move forward. Sampaoli had probably seen enough.
Ever Banega was sent on nine minutes into the second half and Argentina were awarded a penalty when Aguero was hauled down by Hordur Magnusson. Here was Messi’s moment to get off the mark at the World Cup and, perhaps, leave his imprint on the game. But he fluffed his lines, with a weak spot-kick that Haldorsson saved with a dive to his right.
Ronaldo had scored with an early penalty in Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain a day earlier. The Portuguese had also netted a spectacular free-kick late on, to complete a stunning hat-trick, and secure the point for his side.
Messi also had a free-kick in similar territory in injury time but his effort couldn’t go beyond the wall. This wasn’t his day. This wasn’t Argentina’s day.