The thunderclap meets one of the world’s best players as Iceland makes its World Cup debut against Lionel Messi and two-time champion Argentina on Saturday to open Group D play in Spartak Stadium in Moscow.
Iceland is the smallest nation in World Cup history to qualify with a population of approximately 340,000. The Strakarnir Okkar are making their second appearance in a major tournament after a surprising run to the European Championship quarterfinals in France two years ago in which they drew eventual champion Portugal in group play and stunned England 2-1 in the round of 16 before losing to host France.
As was the case in France, a sizable contingent of Iceland’s population has made the trek to Russia. At the Euros, the fan base became an international sensation with their post-match thunderclap led by captain Aron Gunnarsson. Iceland has become a trendy follow for World Cup neutrals in a tournament without perennials Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.
Argentina, meanwhile, is facing the urgency of what will likely be Messi’s final World Cup. The Albiceleste were runners-up to Germany in 2014, but qualifying for Russia proved an arduous task that was not settled until the final match day of South American qualifying. This will be Messi’s fourth World Cup appearance, and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner won the Golden Boot in 2014 with four goals.
Still, Argentina is again loaded with talent, especially at the forward position where Sergio Aguero and Gonzao Higuain have been consistent goal-scorers at the international level in addition to Messi and are augmented by youngster Paulo Dybala.
If there is one area of concern for coach Jorge Sampaoli, it is between the sticks. With first-choice keeper Sergio Romero sidelined through injury, Willy Caballero is expected to be Argentina’s starter, and he appeared in just three matches serving as Chelsea’s backup. Caballero and fellow keepers Nahuel Guzman and Franco Armani have nine caps combined.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
After losing out to Croatia in a two-legged playoff in 2014 World Cup qualifying, Iceland left no doubts about its fate this time by winning a balanced Group I that included fellow Group D participants Croatia as well as Turkey and Ukraine. The Strakarnir Okkar closed group play with a flourish, winning their final three matches by a combined 7-0 scoreline and securing their spot in the field of 32 with a 2-0 victory over Kosovo on the final matchday.
Gylfi Sigurdsson scored both goals in Iceland’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine that started the late-qualifying charge, and the Everton attacking midfielder has a team-high 19 goals in international play.
Argentina opened South American qualifying in disastrous fashion with two draws and two losses in its first four matches. Sampaoli was the third manager La Albiceleste used over the course of qualifying, having churned through Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza. Messi himself missed matches during the process due to a spat with the Argentine football federation before rescuing the squad in the final qualifier with a hat trick versus Ecuador.
This is Argentina’s 12th consecutive World Cup appearance as it looks to make it to the knockout round for the fourth straight edition. La Albiceleste have reached the quarterfinals or better in four of their last five appearances, with the only exception a group stage exit in 2002.
While Iceland is usually identified with a 4-4-2 formation, Sigurdsson often roams underneath Finnbogason to find space in the attacking third. The other key attacker for Strakarnir Okkar is Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who is adept at whipping in crosses from the right and coming off a solid season at the club level in helping English side Burnley qualify for the Europa League.
Gunnarsson and Ragnar Sigurdsson are joint leaders in international appearances with 77 for Iceland, with another six players owning at least 50 caps. Finnbogason is the only other player on the roster in double figures in goals, totaling 13 in 47 appearances.
Argentina’s 4-2-3-1 set-up puts an emphasis on a solid spine, with both Manchester backlines represented in Marcos Rojo (United) and Nicolas Otamendi (City). Even at 34, Javier Mascherano remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and joined in front of the back four by Lucas Biglia.
Up front, the quartet of Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Angel Di Maria have combined for 151 goals, with Messi’s 64 the most in Argentina’s storied history. The Barcelona man is also one of two centurions on La Albiceleste’s roster with 124 appearances, and Mascherano will pass Javier Zanetti as Argentina’s most-capped player at kickoff when he notches his 144th cap.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Iceland – Gylfi Sigurdsson (MF)
The attacking midfielder is the focus of Iceland’s attack and arguably the club’s lone world-class player who can swing a match with a moment of magic. There has been concern he will not be 100 percent after seeing limited action in Iceland’s run-up to the World Cup, but after a disappointing first season with Everton that was cut short with a knee injury, look for Sigurdsson to put forth an inspired effort.
Argentina – Sergio Aguero (F)
While Messi grabs all the headlines, Aguero is a silent assassin due to a tremendous work rate evident for both club and country. Yet that has not translated to the World Cup, where he failed to score in his two prior appearances, and he also did not score in Argentina’s qualifying cycle.
While there are times there have not been enough balls to go around for Argentina’s attack, Manchester City’s all-time leading scorer cannot be overlooked when Messi is drawing multiple defenders to him when he dribbles.
RUMORED TO MOVE
While he will likely come off the bench as an attacking option, Dybala is rumored to be of interest to Atletico Madrid, who will have to spend a substantial sum of money in the transfer market to pry him from Juventus. Di Maria could be part of a sell-off by Paris-St. Germain, which needs to raise money to not run afoul of Financial Fair Play rules.
Per Ladbrokes, Argentina is a heavy favorite at 1-3 odds compared to Iceland getting a 10-1 return. The odds of a draw are listed at 15-4. Messi is also the front-runner for the opening goal at 9-4 odds, followed by Aguero and Higuain at 3-1 while Dybala is 7-2 and Di Maria is 13-2. Finnbogason is Iceland’s top option at 9-1, and Gylfi Sigurdsson is 12-1.
All the good tidings and happy stories about Iceland making its World Cup debut disappear the moment Szymon Marciniak blows his whistle. Then it is about how Strakarnir Okkar play over the 270 minutes and whether they view these three matches as the culmination of six years of toil or if they honestly believe they can advance out of this group.
While Argentina is the favorite, both in the group and to potentially return to the title game, there is a lot of pressure on this squad. Messi has hinted this could be his last international tournament for La Albiceleste, and his teammates need to take some of the pressure off his shoulders.
Iceland does have the potential to cause worry out wide, especially with Gudmundsson if he’s on his game with crossing the ball. Argentina does not have exceptional wide defenders, and if they can create play away from the central triangle of Rojo, Otamendi and Mascherano, a goal could be had.
Argentina will find Iceland tough to break down as one of the better-drilled teams in the tournament. But there likely will be a moment of Messi magic late to break the hearts of the small nation as Albiceleste emerge with a hard-earned 2-0 victory.
Iceland will face Nigeria for its second match Friday in Volgograd, while Argentina faces Croatia on Thursday in Nizhny Novogorod.