Wednesday 26 September 2018

Messi miss lets Iceland off hook in culture clash

Argentina 1 Iceland 1

Iceland’s Hannes Por Halldorsson saves a penalty from Lionel Messi. ‘I had looked at a lot of penalties from Messi and I had a good feeling he would go that way today’. Photo: Reuters
Iceland’s Hannes Por Halldorsson saves a penalty from Lionel Messi. ‘I had looked at a lot of penalties from Messi and I had a good feeling he would go that way today’. Photo: Reuters

Jeremy Wilson

As the final whistle blew, Lionel Messi angrily volleyed the ball high into the Moscow air before kneeling down in the centre-circle to be consoled by a steady succession of team-mates. They must have secretly wished that he had struck his penalty with such venom.

Argentina looked and felt for all the world like losers and, while Messi's 64th-minute missed penalty provided just about the ultimate personal contrast to Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick in Sochi against Spain, he might at least find some consolation in his great rival's story at Euro 2016.

Portugal had also begun with a frustrating 1-1 draw against Iceland but would ultimately still leave France victorious by the end of the tournament.

It is a lesson that should provide some perspective amid the temptation to suggest that Ronaldo has already struck some kind of knockout blow in any personal World Cup duel with Messi, even if round one has belonged so emphatically to the Portuguese.

Argentina's Lionel Messi battles with Iceland's Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson. Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Argentina's Lionel Messi battles with Iceland's Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson. Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

As well as the tame penalty that was saved here by Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, Messi also wasted a flurry of late opportunities with free-kicks. Even the presence of Diego Maradona urging his team on and sucking a cigar in front of a sign reminding fans of the smoking ban could not sufficiently inspire Argentina.

It is early days, but with further tricky group matches to follow against Croatia and Nigeria, one has to wonder if the collective scars from a succession of international near-misses are beginning to weigh heavily on this group.

Messi also missed a penalty against Chile in the final of the 2016 Copa America and he provoked surprisingly little confidence as he stood over the ball here. Halldorsson later said he was confident he knew which way Messi would shoot, even if the biggest mistake was surely in striking the ball at such a comfortable height. "It was a dream come true to save it," said Halldorsson. "It was a situation I knew could come up. I had looked at a lot of penalties from Messi and I had a good feeling he would go that way today."

Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina's manager, described Messi's penalty as "in the past" but conceded it had been an uncomfortable game for his talisman. "We should have hurt our opponent more and I don't think our transitions were fast enough," he said. "We came to win against a team with a lot of people in their box that stopped us capitalising on the ball possession."

Although the final statistics showed that Argentina had 78 per cent of the ball and created more than three times Iceland's attempts on goal, that still told a very skewed story. Yes, Iceland were physical and hard-working, but they also played with an attacking intent that troubled Argentina. Indeed, after two early Messi free-kicks were almost turned in by Nicolas Otamendi and then Nicolas Tagliafico, Iceland missed two wonderful opportunities.

First Alfred Finnbogason crossed for Gyfli Sigurdsson, whose effort was saved by Willy Caballero, then Birkir Bjarnason shot wide when he should have punished a poor clearance by the Chelsea goalkeeper. It appeared that Argentina's cast of attacking talent would punish such profligacy when Sergio Aguero brilliantly controlled a powerful Marcos Rojo pass before shooting beyond Halldorsson.

Argentina's Sergio Aguero celebrates after scoring his side's goal during the match against Iceland. Photo: Victor Caivano/AP
Argentina's Sergio Aguero celebrates after scoring his side's goal during the match against Iceland. Photo: Victor Caivano/AP

It was crucial that Iceland responded quickly, and another mistake by Caballero helped them draw level within four minutes. Gylfi Sigurdsson had crossed and, with Caballero and right-back Eduardo Salvio both missing chances to clear, Finnbogason marked Iceland's first World Cup match with a goal to enter their football folklore.

Sampaoli was happier with Argentina's performance thereafter but, with the team so built around Messi and his radar deserting him, they rarely looked likely to fashion an equaliser elsewhere. There was a hopeful penalty appeal when Salvio's cross inadvertently struck the arm of Ragnar Sigurdsson and then Messi's penalty miss after Hordur Magnusson had bundled Aguero to the floor.

Argentina should have had another penalty when Birkir Saevarsson tripped Cristian Pavon, but referee Szymon Marciniak and his video assistant referee Mark Geiger both concluded it was not a clear-cut decision.

Pavon had just replaced Angel di Maria and Argentina were certainly more effective after that change. Yet Iceland still never ceased working and deserved yet another famous result.

Questioned about celebrating a draw as if they had won, they were rightly unapologetic. "Are you Cristiano Ronaldo's uncle?" asked Halldorsson. "We were playing against one of the best teams in the world, against the best player in the world, in our first World Cup. It was exactly the same as in the Euros. We celebrated a point against Cristiano Ronaldo as we did against Messi. We know how important every point is to get out of the group."

Another journalist asked if the players could actually enjoy their direct style of football. "I think yes," said manager Heimir Hallgrimsson. "We have to play in a special way because they have such superior skills. It is more enjoyable to play this way and achieve something than play in a different way and not achieve anything."

Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason celebrates scoring his side's goal Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason celebrates scoring his side's goal Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

The players and fans certainly looked like they were having the time of their lives, which was rather more than you could say for Messi.

Telegraph

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