World Cup Recap — Match 5: France 2, Australia 1 (June 16)

VAR made its first game-changing impact at the World Cup in Kazan, where a penalty was awarded before Paul Pogba’s looping shot in the 80th minute allowed a sluggish France side to escape with a 2-1 victory over Australia in the opening match in Group C.

In the 55th minute, Antoine Griezmann broke into the penalty area, where Joshua Risdon appeared to have made a proper tackle to knock the ball away from Griezmann and to Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan. After play continued, video assistant referee Mauro Vigliano signaled to Andres Cunha to review the play just off the pitch.

After examining the replay, Cunha awarded a penalty to France, which Griezmann calmly slammed into the net in the 57th minute to open the scoring. Risdon was also given a yellow card for denying an obvious goal-scoring chance.

It was a short-lived lead for Les Bleus, however, as Australia equalized via a clear-cut penalty four minutes later. France defender Samuel Umtiti inexplicably made contact with the ball with his hand in the penalty area trying to clear a free kick taken by Aaron Mooy.

Mile Jedinak pulled the Socceroos level by putting the ball into the right side of the net as France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris dove in the opposite direction.

The introduction of substitute Olivier Giroud gave some shape to Les Bleus, who were able to pin Australia in its final third though not creating many threatening chances. The decisive goal by Pogba came after a pass from Giroud, and the Manchester United midfielder took a toe poke from the top of the penalty area that may have taken a slight deflection off an Australian defender as it looped over Ryan and hit the crossbar before dropping completely over the line to make it 2-1.

The three points gained hides plenty of issues for France, considered one of the pre-World Cup favorites with a very talented but also very young side under Didier Deschamps. Les Bleus failed to establish a rhythm for much of the match against a well-drilled Australia side that was not afraid to venture forward when it gained possession.

After an early flurry by France in the first 10 minutes of the match in which Ryan had to be alert on multiple occasions, Australia wound up with the best scoring opportunity of the opening 45 minutes. Mooy curled a free kick into no man’s land, where France midfielder Corentin Tolisso touched the ball and forced Lloris into a diving save by his left post.

France moves onto its second match in Group C against Peru on Thursday at Ekaterinburg, while Australia will try to regroup versus Denmark the same day in Samara.

2018 World Cup — Group E Costa Rica vs Serbia Match Preview

The surprise package of the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica looks to show its quarterfinal appearance four years ago was no fluke as it faces Serbia in the Group E opener Sunday in Samara.

Little was expected from the CONCACAF side in Brazil after being placed in a group with champions Italy, Uruguay and England. Yet it was the Ticos who finished on top with two wins and a draw while conceding just once. Their stunning ride continued by ousting Greece on penalty kicks in the round of 16 before being undone in similar fashion by the Netherlands.

Serbia is in the World Cup for the second time in three editions since its latest incarnation as a country ahead of qualifying for the 2010 tournament. The Orlovi have not been to the knockout round since reaching the round of 16 in 1998 when they were known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In previous iterations, Serbia’s best showing were fourth-place finishes in both the inaugural 1930 World Cup and again in 1962. The Orlovi have just one win in their last two appearances and finished last in the 32-team field in 2006.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

All five of Costa Rica’s World Cup appearances have come since qualifying for the first time in 1990. The Ticos finished second to Mexico in the final round of CONCACAF play despite not winning any of their final three matches but also sweeping the United States.

Oscar Ramirez had balanced scoring as 10 different players had at least one goal, with Marco Urena leading the way with three of his team’s 14 markers. Prior to their first quarterfinal appearance four years ago, Costa Rica had only reached the knockout round in its maiden showing in 1990.

Serbia also booked its spot in the World Cup via automatic qualification, finishing atop a group that included Ireland and 2016 European Championship semifinalist Wales. The Orlovi went unbeaten through their first eight matches and secured their spot by beating Georgia in their finale.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored a group-high six goals and Dusan Tadic contributed four with seven assists as Serbia qualified for its first major tournament since the 2010 World Cup.

FORMATIONS

Costa Rica uses three center backs with a pair of wide backs that can shift between a 5-2-2-1 and a 3-4-2-1. But it all starts between the sticks with Keylor Navas, who is the best goalkeeper in the CONCACAF region and coming off his third consecutive Champions League title with Real Madrid.

There is one key change on the right side with defender Ronald Matarrita unavailable due to a hamstring injury. On the left, Christian Gamboa will try to push forward on rhe flank to provide support for Celso Borges. Up front, talisman Bryan Ruiz is back for his second World Cup after scoring twice in Brazil, but he also had a penalty saved in the quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands.

Borges and Ruiz are the two most capped players on the Ticos roster with 111 and 110, respectively, which puts them in the top five all-time. If Borges plays all three games, he will move into third place and Ruiz would move into a tie for fourth if he does likewise.

The Orlovi will likely set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and there is quality in the spine with central defender Branson Ivanovic and midfielder Nemanja Matic ahead of him. Partnering with Ivanovic is 20-year-old Nikola Milenkovic, who has just three caps to his name.

Mitrovic and Tadic are the offensive focal points up front for Serbia, but playmaker Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be under pressure to produce after coach Mladen Krstajic was able to bring him back into the fold after being exiled by predecessor Slavoljub Muslin. The midfielder scored 15 goals for Lazio in all competitions this season but has just four caps.

Ivanovic is the only centurion on Serbia’s roster with 103 international appearances, and will become the country’s all-time leader with his next appearance. Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic (81), Kolarov (76) and Tadic (53) are all over the half-century mark.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Costa Rica – Joel Campbell (M) 

The 25-year-old had a goal and an assist in the 2014 World Cup and also showed plenty of calm in converting against Greece in the round of 16. Campbell has plenty of pace, and with an inexperienced central defender on his side in Milenkovic, look for the Ticos to try and find him in space to let him cut into the final third.

Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic (F)

After failing to make an impact with Newcastle United and having loan deals to both Anderlecht and Bordeaux fail to materialize, Mitrovic took out his frustrations constructively in helping Fulham win promotion to the Premier League. He scored 12 goals in 17 league matches for the Cottagers after arriving in February, and the 23-year-old already has 16 goals in 37 international appearances.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Even with three Champions League titles, Navas will reportedly be on the move after the World Cup as new Real coach Julen Lopetegui reportedly wants Manchester United keeper David De Gea at the Bernabeu. Campbell is technically on loan for Arsenal at Real Betis, and it would not be surprising to see him at least make a bid for a spot with the Gunners before possibly returning to Portugal next season.

Tadic could be yet another Southampton player who winds up at Anfield with Liverpool, though Everton were reportedly interested in the winger last month as well. Newcastle have reportedly put a £15 million transfer price on Mitrovic, and it may be up to Fulham to decide if the striker is worth the price tag as it makes the jump to the top flight.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Serbia are decided favorites for this contest with 10-11 odds to win compared to 7-2 for Costa Rica. The odds of a draw are listed at 11-5. Mitrovic is the first choice as first goal-scorer with 10-3 odds, followed by Aleksandar Prijovic (7-2) and Luka Jovic (4-1). For the Ticos, Johan Venegas and Urena are joint-favorites at 13-2 while Ruiz is 8-1.

PREDICTION

In Group E, there is Brazil… and there is everyone else, which makes the race for second wide open among the Ticos, Serbia and Switzerland. Costa Rica and Switzerland both made the knockout round four years ago, so there are no easy outs in this group.

The Orlovi have the talent on paper to give Costa Rica all sorts of problems, but relying on a playmaking midfielder with just four international appearances in the World Cup seems unorthodox at best and foolish at worst. The good news for Serbia is Mitrovic has been irresistible of late and had a hat trick in Serbia’s 5-1 thumping of Brazil in a tune-up earlier this month.

If Milinkovic-Savic can get the ball to the Fulham forward, good things can happen, even against a world-class keeper in Navas. This is not a good matchup for Costa Rica since Ivanovic and Matic are very good at shutting down opponents, and the Ticos do not have a dynamic midfield that controls possession.

It will be choppy at times, but Serbia should emerge with a 1-0 victory.

2018 World Cup — Group D Croatia vs Nigeria Match Preview

They could be group stage flameouts or darkhorse semifinalists at this World Cup, and both Croatia and Nigeria look to begin making that distinction Saturday in their Group D opener in Kaliningrad.

Croatia is back in the World Cup for the second straight time and has missed only one tournament in the six World Cups they have been eligible for since being allowed to particiapte in 1998. The Vatreni, however, have not escaped group play since that initial appearance 20 years ago when Davor Suker led them to a third-place finish in France.

Nigeria is making its third consecutive World Cup appearance and sixth in the last seven tournaments. The Super Eagles made the knockout round in Brazil before being outclassed by France in the round of 16, and that remains the high-water mark for Africa’s most populous nation after also doing so in 1994 and 1998.

While Croatia will rely on the veteran poise of midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Nigeria has plenty of youth in its attack, led by Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi and Ahmed Musa, who joined CSKA Moscow after failing to stick with Leicester City, where compatriot Kelechi Iheanacho was ahead of him in the pecking order.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

For the second straight World Cup, Croatia qualified via the playoff route. After topping Iceland in 2014, the Vatreni finished runners-up to them this time around in a group that also featured Turkey and Ukraine. The failure to win the group cost Ante Cacic his job, and Zlatko Dalic took over for the final two group matches after turning UAE club Al-Ain into a regional power in Asia.

Croatia claimed four points to finish second and made quick work of Greece under Dalic, winning the first leg at home 4-1 to cruise to qualification, but it has been uneven in its four friendlies this year, losing to Peru and Brazil while defeating Mexico and Senegal.

Nigeria emerged from arguably the most difficult qualifying group in Africa, comfortably winning a four-team round-robin with Zambia and 2014 World Cup participants Cameroon and Algeria. The Super Eagles did have to overcome a 3-0 forfeit loss to Algeria in group play when it was determined Shehu Abdullahi did not serve a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation but still won the group by five points.

The Super Eagles have struggled in the buildup to the World Cup, which started with a 4-0 pasting by Morocco in the African Cup of Nations final in February. They went 1-1-4 in six friendlies, beating only Poland while suffering losses to Serbia, England and the Czech Republic.

FORMATIONS

The teams will mirror each other with 4-2-3-1 formations. There is quality across Croatia’s backline, featuring Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and Lokomotiv’s Verdun Corluka in central defense. Sime Vrsaljko should be able to push forward from right back, and Rakitic will be a force in the defensive midfield.

Perisic and Modric move well in attack and both will provide service to Marko Mandzukic, who has 30 goals in 83 international appearances. Six of the starting XI are 30 or older for the Vatreni, with Modric leading the way with 106 international appearances. Corluka will reach the century mark with his next appearance.

In contrast, Nigeria will start a teenager between the sticks in Francis Uzoho, who has made six international appearances. Abdullahi is the most seasoned defender of this projected starting lineup with 25 international appearances. Wilfred Ndidi will provide support as a defensive midfielder and has played well in that role with Leicester City.

The Super Eagles will rely on talisman Jon Mikel Obi to control the midfield while relying on the pace of Iwobi and nous of Moses. Odion Ighalo, who left Watford for Chinese side Changchun Yatai in the 2017 January transfer window, is expected to get first crack at striker while Musa and Iheanacho are waiting in the wings. Mikel is Nigeria’s most-capped player with 85 appearances, and despite being only 25, Musa is second with 72.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Croatia – Luka Modric (MF)

He is not flashy, he is not quick, but Modric can quietly dominate a match with his passing and vision. The most recent example of that came with Real Madrid in the Champions League final, and he also can pop up for the occasional goal, evidenced in the first-leg win over Greece in the World Cup playoff.

Nigeria – Alex Iwobi (MF)

Iwobi still looks like a man without a position at times for Arsenal, but his pace on the right side will be something Croatia cannot afford to underestimate. Iwobi scored a pair of goals in Nigeria’s qualifying route, and the 22-year-old has five goals in 19 international appearances. Given the uncertainty around Arsenal’s makeover with new coach Unai Emery, Iwobi could use the World Cup as a springboard to a new destination.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Nigeria midfielder Joel Obi is reportedly being pursued by Crystal Palace, with both Benfica and Porto in the mix. On the Croatian side, Vrsaljko has piqued the curiosity of both Manchester United and Napoli, and Perisic has been linked with making a move from Inter Milan to a potential landing spot with Spurs.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Croatia are heavy favorites with 8-11 odds compared to Nigeria being listed at 21-5. The odds of a draw are 12-5. For opening goal-scorers, Mandzukic is the front-runner at 4-1 and teammate Nikola Kalinic is second at 9-2. Perisic is given 6-1 odds to give the Vatreni a 1-0 advantage, while Iheanacho is Nigeria’s top option at 13-2, followed by Ighalo at 7-1.

PREDICTION

In cases like this, experience usually triumphs over youth. Or as the old adage goes, “Young teams find ways to lose.” Nigeria has not looked terribly impressive under Gernot Rhor, who is coaching his fourth African country this decade after stops at Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso.

There will be a lot of pressure on Mikel to make good decisions in the midfield, and Ighalo is also going to have his hands full in the final third against what is a sneaky good back line. If Lovren shows the same form he had in the Champions League final with Liverpool, Croatia will be in good shape defensively.

Modric will be the fulcrum for this match, looking for creases in the back four while taking advantage of what will likely be an eager and aggressive Nigeria side. If the Vatreni can get set pieces, they could be quite dangerous in addition to using Mandzukic as a target forward.

Expect Croatia to test Uzoho early from distance to see what kind of hands the Super Eagles teenager has and then look for Modric to pull apart Nigeria’s defense. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing match, but the Vatreni should get off to a positive start with a 3-1 win.

2018 World Cup — Group C Peru vs Denmark Match Preview

After ending a 36-year drought in making its first World Cup appearance since 1982, Peru now sets out to end a 40-year winless drought in football’s biggest tournament Saturday when it faces Denmark in its Group C opener in Saransk.

This is the first trip to the World Cup for the Incas since finishing last in Group A in Spain in 1982. One has to turn back the calendar four more years for their last World Cup victory as they advanced to the second round in 1978 with wins over Scotland and Iran before going winless in a second group stage and finishing eighth.

Denmark’s absence from the World Cup is notably shorter as it returns after missing out in 2014. The European country crashed out in group play in it last appearance in 2010, a far cry from the Danish Dynamite sides that reached the knockout rounds in 1986, 1998 and 2002 in their first three World Cup appearances.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Peru started South American qualifying as the fourth-lowest ranked squad of the 10 countries with a FIFA ranking of 50 and lived up to that form with four points through its first seven matches. But veteran strikers Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan meshed well with a younger set of teammates in the midfield as the Incas claimed 22 of a possible 33 points in the final 11 qualifiers to claim the fifth and final spot out of CONMEBOL.

The Incas secured that spot on the final matchday, sweating out a draw versus Colombia while Brazil beat Chile 3-0. That two-goal swing was enough to give Peru a better goal difference than the reigning Copa America champions with both teams on 26 points.

But Peru still had work to do in the form of an intercontinental playoff versus Oceania representative New Zealand. After earning a scoreless draw on the road in the first leg, Farfan and Christian Ramos scored goals on either side of halftime to give the Incas a 2-0 aggregate victory and a spot in the World Cup.

Like its South American counterpart, Denmark also had to navigate the playoff route to punch its ticket to Russia. The Danes finished second to Poland in Group E during European qualifying and were paired with Ireland in a two-legged playoff. After a scoreless draw at home, Christian Eriksen took matters into his own hands in Dublin, scoring three goals as Denmark overturned an early deficit and recorded a 5-1 victory.

Even with its flameout in South Africa eight years ago, Denmark has proven to be a tough out in group play, compiling a 7-2-3 record in its four appearances.

FORMATIONS

Both teams are fond of the 4-2-3-1 formation, and Peru’s defense has been impressive with the turn of the calendar year, conceding just once in their five friendlies while going 4-1-0 in their World Cup preparation. Ramos and Alberto Rodriguez form the spine of the Incas in central defense while Yoshimar Yotun and Renato Tapia providing support in the midfield.

The magic, though, is in Peru’s attack where Christian Cueva pulls the strings looking to set up Guerrero and Farfan. The duo have 59 goals in international play, and winger Edison Flores will be no stranger to Denmark after spending the past two seasons with Aalborg in the Danish Superliga.

Guerrero and Farfan are Peru’s most senior players with 88 and 84 caps, respectively. Rodriguez and Yotun are tied for third with 74, while Ramos (68) and Luis Advincula (67) are the other players with more than 50 appearances for the Incas.

Denmark has a strong No. 1 between the sticks in Kasper Schemichel, who backstopped Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2016 and is the son of legendary keeper Peter Schemichel. Talisman Simon Kjaer and promising Chelsea product Andreas Christensen anchor the central defense.

Eriksen has license to roam freely in the midfield, and the Tottenham Hotspur is one of the more creative players at the World Cup. While the Danes will be without injured first-choice striker Nicklas Bendtner, who has 30 goals in international play, Nicolai Jorgensen and Yussuf Poulsen could form a potent trident of attack with Eriksen.

Midfielder William Kvist is the most senior player on Denmark’s side with 80 caps, with Kjaer and Eriksen right behind him at 78. Fellow veteran midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli is the last of the four Danes with at least a half-century of caps, amassing 59.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Peru – Paolo Guerrero (F)

The World Cup is a second lease on international play for Guerrero, who was originally set to serve a ban for testing positive for benzoylecgonine, the active ingredient in cocaine. But the team captains for the other three teams in the group wrote in support of suspending the ban so Guerrero could play in the World Cup and then serve the balance after they complete play. He scored twice in Peru’s 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia earlier this month and is the country’s all-time leading scorer.

Denmark – Christian Eriksen (MF)

Eriksen put a huge target on his back by carrying Denmark past Ireland in the European playoff and is no stranger to the big stage after helping Spurs reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League and totaling 14 goals and 12 assists in 48 matches across all competitions.

A very cerebral player, Eriksen is important to Denmark in terms of controlling the tempo and exploiting an opponent’s weakness in addition. He is also a willing defender who mastered backtracking as part of Spurs’ two primary formations as they used both a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1.

RUMORED TO MOVE

Eriksen is reportedly drawing interest from reigning three-time Champions League winner Real Madrid, which saw how good he was first-hand as Spurs recorded a win and a draw in group play. Schmeichel could be tipped for a move to Liverpool, which is in need of a commanding presence between the sticks to mount a title challenge against Manchester City in the English Premier League.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Denmark is a slight favorite at 11-8 odds, with Peru listed at 11-5. There are also 2-1 odds for the teams playing to a draw. Guerrero and Jorgensen are joint-favorites for the first goal of the match, getting 9-2 odds, while Eriksen is further down the list at 6-1 odds. Farfan is the second-best option for Peru at 13-2.

PREDICTION

There is not much to separate these teams. While Peru may have the better finishers in Guerrero and Farfan, Denmark has the best playmaker on the field in Eriksen, and that could make all the difference. On paper, the Danes also have the better shot-stopper in Schmeichel, though he did have an up-and-down season in the Midlands with Leicester City.

Peru is a very cohesive unit, and surviving the grind that is South American qualifying is nothing to be scoffed at. The Incas defeated three World Cup teams in their run-up, and the Danes did not concede in their final four friendlies. Denmark looked impressive in its final tune-up, a 2-0 victory over Mexico, and also played a full-strength Chile to a scoreless draw in March.

A 1-1 draw seems like the most logical result for this opener, but when anything is possible in the World Cup, a moment of magic from Eriksen will prove decisive as Denmark opens with a 2-1 victory.

UP NEXT

Denmark will face Australia in Samara on Thursday, while Peru moves on to face group favorite France earlier that day in Ekaterinburg.

 

 

2018 World Cup — Group D Argentina vs Iceland Match Preview

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.

FORMATIONS

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.

BETTING ANGLE

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.

PREDICTION

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.

UP NEXT

Iceland will face Nigeria for its second match Friday in Volgograd, while Argentina faces Croatia on Thursday in Nizhny Novogorod.

World Cup recap — Match 4: Spain 3, Portugal 3 (June 15)

In a pulsating match that lived up to the enormous expectations as the most anticipated contest of group play, Cristiano Ronaldo completed a hat trick with a sumptuous free kick from 25 yards into the upper right corner in the 88th minute as Portugal twice squandered one-goal leads before scraping out a 3-3 tie versus Iberian rival Spain in the Group B opener of the World Cup for these teams in Sochi.

Ronaldo, who became the fourth player in World Cup history to score in four different tournaments earlier in the contest, drew a foul on Gerard Pique just above the semicircle and slightly off-center to the right. The Real Madrid star calmly curled a right-footed shot around a four-man Spanish wall and inside the right post as keeper David De Gea helplessly watched it ripple the net.

Sensing the chance to steal all three points after the equalizer, Portugal pushed forward for a winner, with Koke making a desperate sliding tackle in stoppage time to block a shot by Ricardo Quaresma, who had cut in from the left into the penalty area and avoided two defenders before trying to shoot.

Diego Costa scored Spain’s first two goals before Nacho had given the 2010 World Cup champion a 3-2 lead on 57 minutes with a spectacular searing volley from distance. La Roja twice overcame one-goal deficits, but their possession-based and short-passing style was not enough to see out the contest, and a howler by De Gea on Ronaldo’s second goal right before halftime will also be pointed out as a reason they claimed only one point.

The result leaves Iran as the unexpected leader of Group B through the first set of matches by virtue of its late 1-0 triumph over Morocco, while Spain and Portugal are tied for second. The result capped a tumultuous first week in Russia for Spain, which fired coach Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday one day after he accepted the Real Madrid coaching position without informing anyone in the Spanish federation he was negotiating with the reigning three-time Champions League winner.

Lopetegui’s replacement, Fernando Hierro, cut a composed figure in the coaches’ box, offering support to his players as the style of play remained identical to the one that powered La Roja’s rise as one of the best teams of all-times with European Championship titles bracketing their World Cup triumph in South Africa.

Facing an opponent comprised of many of his Real Madrid teammates, Ronaldo and Portugal started the game on the front foot, and he drew a penalty on Nacho, who clipped him in the left side of the penalty area after the Portuguese superstar performed a stepover. Ronaldo made no mistake from 12 yards, slamming the ball into the right side of the net for his 81st international goal as he joined Pele, Uwe Seeler and Mirsolav Klose as the only players to score in four different World Cup tournaments.

Spain found its bearings and pulled level in the 24th minute as Costa scored one of his trademark goals. He initiated contact with Portuguese defender Pepe, knocking him to the pitch, while chasing a long ball sent by Sergio Busquets, gained control of it and then outfoxed Jose Fonte before ripping a right-footed shot between Fonte and a second defender from the top of the penalty area between them and inside the left post past a diving Rui Patricio.

La Roja nearly grabbed the lead minutes later as Isco uncorked a rasping right-footed shot that thumped the underside of the crossbar and landed on the goal line before being cleared from danger. Referee Gianlucha Rossi, who did consult the VAR crew on both Ronaldo’s penalty and Costa’s first goal, did not need a second opinion since his watch never buzzed.

By this point, Spain was in full pressing mode and stringing passes together in rapid-fire fashion. One such sequence ended with a shot by Andres Iniesta rolling inches wide of the right post. Yet it was Portugal which went into halftime with a 2-1 lead as Ronaldo collected a pass from Goncalo Guedes and took a step to his left before taking a low 20-yard shot straight on that De Gea did not get down fast enough to stop as it caromed off his body and rolled into the net.

Costa, though, struck again to draw Spain level in the 55th minute. In a beautiful set piece, David Silva sent a free kick long to the right, where Sergio Busquets headed it back to the middle, where Costa slammed it home from close range. Then it was Nacho’s turn to do what Isco could not, unleash a thunderbolt that resulted in a goal.

A poor clearance by Portgual’s William Carvalho went out to the left, where Nacho was able to size it up before lashing a right-footed shot that sliced off the inside of the left post.

 

 

 

Costa had a chance to provide a crucial insurance goal in the 71st minute, but he was unable to sweep a cross fashioned by Jordi Alba’s cutback. Spain had dominated possession for a long spell after Nacho’s goal, but also had pulled back after Hierro subbed out Andres Iniesta on 70 minutes.

Ronaldo became the third Portuguese player to record a hat trick in the World Cup, joining Eusebio (1966) and Pauleta (2002). It was the 51st hat trick in World Cup history, with Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri most recently accomplishing the feat versus Honduras in 2014.

2018 World Cup recap — Match 3: Iran 1, Morocco 0 (June 15)

An own goal by Morocco defender Aziz Bouhaddouz in the 95th minute gave Iran a vital 1-0 victory Friday in St. Petersburg, giving Team Melli a fighting chance to emerge from Group B in the World Cup.

The match appeared destined for a draw until substitute Sofyan Amrabat fouled Ehsan Haji Safi as he chased a long ball down the left side. Safi took the ensuing free kick and curled it into a dangerous area, and while Bouhaddouz was first to the ball, he re-directed it inside the near post and past helpless goalkeeper El Kajoui with barely 90 seconds remaining.

It was Iran’s first World Cup victory since defeating the United States 2-1 in 1998 and second overall in 13 matches. The three points provide a lifeline for Team Melli, who will face Iberian powers Spain and Portugal in their remaining two contests.

Morocco, which had an 18-match unbeaten streak end with this heartbreaking loss, will be hard-pressed to reach the knockout round for the first time since their only breakthrough in 1986. The loss capped a disappointing week for the African nation, which lost to the united North American bid of the United States, Mexico and Canada to host the 2026 World Cup on Wednesday.

Before conceding the own goal, the Atlas Lions had the best chance of the match in the 79th minute, with Hakim Ziyach’s fizzing and slicing 20-yard volley targeting the lower left corner was pushed around the post by Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand, who was at full stretch.

Morocco started the match brightly, controlling play in the first quarter-hour and had a flurry of shots from close range that the Team Melli defense smothered. Beiranvand also had to make a save in that sequence, denying Morocco captain Medhi Benatia. Amine Harit had an opportunity on the half-hour for the Atlas Lions, but his shot went right at the Iranian keeper.

Team Melli finally found an opportunity on the counter right before halftime, but striker Sardar Azmoun broke stride dribbling into the penalty area and could not get full force behind his shot that El Kajoli stopped. The rebound squirted out to Alireza Jahanbakhsh, whose attempt from nearly the same spot was deflected by El Kajoli with his left arm.

The second half lacked the pace of the opening 45 minutes and ground down through Iran slowing the pace. There was a moment of worry right before the final quarter-hour when Noureddine Amrabat struck his head on the pitch after being accidentally shouldered by Haji Safi.

The Moroccan midfielder was clearly dazed and wobbling, yet was still trying to convince his training staff he was able to continue. After nearly a minute of back and forth that included receiving a pair of slaps in the face from a trainer, Amrabat finally wobbled to the point he was assisted back down to sit on the sideline, prompting coach Herve Renard to send on the younger Amrabat.

Referee Cuneyt Cakir brandished four yellow cards, with Jahanbakhsh, Masoud Shojaei and Karim Ansarifard going into his book along with Morocco’s Karim El Ahmadi.

Iran plays its next group match against Spain in Kazan on Wednesday, while Portugal and Morocco will square off earlier that day in Moscow.