Lionel Messi and Argentina began a highly anticipated World Cup campaign with a whimper as Iceland secured a historic result in their first ever World Cup appearance. After Sergio Aguero opened the scoring in the 19th minute, Alfred Finnbogason capitalized off of a Willy Caballero rebound to score the Vikings first ever World Cup goal. Messi, often criticized by the Argentine faithful, failed to answer rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick against Spain by missing a penalty, a seeming confirmation that the narrative of the CR7 vs La Pulga debate weighed heavily on him. Messi’s struggles shouldn’t overshadow a phenomenal tournament debut for Iceland, who picked up right where they left off at Euro 2016 by displaying impressive defensive fortitude and embodying team play.
Messi and Friends Fail to Make Impression:
Lionel Messi plays with the weight of an entire country on his shoulders, and it showed. The best player in world football had ten shots, with three on target, and nine dribbles, yet he missed a penalty that would have given Argentina the lead. However, much of his perceived failure can easily be redirected on his teammates; oftentimes, Messi would receive balls in the center of the pitch only to be instantly swarmed by four Icelandic defenders. Argentina looked flat in the midfield, with the questionable decision to start Maximiliano Meza looming large over Jorge Sampaoli. In the next game, Argentina should consider playing Paulo Dybala or one of their other attacking players to try to find some more dynamic combinations. Cristian Pavon looked threatening in his limited minutes today, so look for him to be one of the contenders to take a starting spot in this imbalanced team.
Iceland Shine in World Cup Debut:
The expectation for Iceland’s World Cup opener were minimal at best. Sure, lighting struck once at Euro 2016 in France, but this was Lionel Messi. The task of containing the best player in the world at the biggest stage in world football would surely too much for the smallest nation in the competition, right? The Vikings displayed immense defensive organization and swarmed the midfield channels successfully stifling established talents such as Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia. Often using physicality and a substantial size advantage, players such as Finnbogason would often win the second ball to help creative midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson spark a counterattack. An early missed chance from winger Bikir Bjarnson after quick direct play set the tone for the rest of the match. If Iceland can maintain their organization and confidence, they can be a threat to anyone in this competition.
Ronaldo Winning Mental War Against Messi:
It was fascinating to watch the performance of Messi just one day after Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick for Portugal. While Ronaldo scored an early penalty and later a dagger free kick to lead Portugal to an impressive 3-3 tie with Spain, Messi missed a potentially game winning penalty and struck the wall with a late free kick. The contrast between the two performances could not be greater, and now the din of negative commentary will make Messi’s task even more difficult as Argentina continue on in the group stage. This World Cup has already seen a number of penalties; will Messi be the one to step up and take Argentina’s next?