Four years on from heartbreak in the 2014 World Cup final in Rio, Argentina’s journey of redemption begins in Moscow against debutants Iceland on Saturday.
La Albiceleste are less fancied than they were in Brazil, but few sides will have as much drive to win the tournament as Jorge Sampaoli’s team. They are determined to crown Lionel Messi’s career with the World Cup title that would cement him as the greatest player of his generation beyond question.
It’s a very different story for Iceland, the smallest nation ever to appear at the World Cup. They certainly aren’t there to make up the numbers though, as they proved at Euro 2016 when they kept Cristiano Ronaldo quiet in a draw with Portugal and eliminated England.
This promises to be one of the most intriguing ties in the first round of fixtures.
Argentina – WWLWLW
Argentina have won four of their last six matches, one of which was the victory over Ecuador that sealed their place at the finals. But the two defeats have exposed huge weaknesses in the team which didn’t exist four years ago.
They lost 4-2 to Nigeria in Krasnodar last November, less than a month before being drawn against the Super Eagles in the World Cup group stages. Even more memorably, they were thrashed 6-1 by Spain in a March friendly, equalling their heaviest ever defeat. Defensive frailities could cost Sampaoli’s team in Russia.
Iceland – DWLLLD
Iceland’s form since qualifying doesn’t make for happy reading. They’ve won just once in their last seven matches, and that was against Indonesia. They’ve recently lost to Mexico, Peru and Norway, conceding three goals in each game.
Their World Cup send-off in Reykjavik last week was also ruined as they relinquished a 2-0 lead to draw with Ghana. Not that Heimir Hallgrimsson will be too concerned – Iceland’s form before Euro 2016 was pretty patchy too, and it didn’t seem to affect them once they got to France.
Facts & Statistics
- Iceland’s population of 350,000 is more than 125 times smaller than that of Saturday’s opponents (approx 43,850,000).
- Lionel Messi has scored 64 goals for Argentina – more than Iceland’s predicted starting XI (see below) put together.
- Messi and Javier Mascherano will become the 2nd and 3rd Argentine players to play at four separate World Cups, after Diego Maradona.
- Mascherano is currently tied with Javier Zanetti on 143 Argentina caps and will become the sole record holder if he plays against Iceland.
- Argentina have not lost a World Cup group match since the 1-0 defeat to England in 2002 – a run of 10 matches without defeat.
- The England game is also the last time Argentina were beaten by a team other than Germany at the World Cup.
Argentina were handed a blow last week as West Ham midfielder Manuel Lanzini ruptured a cruciate ligament in training and was ruled out for the tournament. He has been replaced by Enzo Perez, meaning that Argentina’s squad now has the oldest average age of any in the tournament.
Lanzini’s absence will give Maxi Meza the chance to start on the right. 36-year-old Willy Caballero may start in goal ahead of Sergio Romero, who hasn’t started for Argentina since qualification. Lucas Biglia was a concern with a back strain but appears to have made a full recovery.
Gylfi Sigurdsson suffered an injury playing for Everton in March and didn’t feature again for the rest of the season, which had Icelanders sweating on his fitness. Their talismanic midfielder has made a full recovery though and was back to his best with two assists against Ghana.
Hallgrimsson is unlikely to deviate too much from the side that faced Ghana, though Birkir Mar Saevarsson may return at right back. Captain Aron Gunnarsson hasn’t played in the warm-up matches and it remains to be seen if he will face Argentina. Striker Bjorn Sigurdarson is the only member of the expected starting XI who wasn’t at Euro 2016.
Predicted Starting Lineups
Argentina (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Biglia, Mascherano; Meza, Messi, Di Maria; Aguero
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldorsson; Saevarsson, Arnason, R Sigurdsson, AF Skulason; JB Gudmundsson, Hallfredsson, G Sigurdsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason, Sigurdarson
If Iceland are as brave as they were at Euro 2016 they could cause real problems for a shaky Argentine defence. However, France cruelly exposed the gaps Iceland left at the back and Argentina will fancy their chances of doing the same.
With Croatia to come on Matchday 2, it’s imperative that La Albiceleste get off to a good start, and as long as they don’t underestimate their opponents they should be fine. Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria can hurt any team and an Iceland back four with a combined age of 130 may find themselves stretched from the get-go.
Argentina’s leaky defence may gift Iceland a first ever World Cup goal, as they did in their opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina four years ago. But sheer attacking firepower should make this a comfortable victory.
Prediction: Argentina 3-1 Iceland