World Cup Group D: Can Iceland chill Messi, Argentina?
I defy you to try and find any history between Argentina and Iceland, to locate even the smallest, most insignificant nugget of information that could link these two countries. It seems that these two nations are simply too far apart and too drastically different to have ever crossed paths.
The countries’ capitals are over 11,000 km apart, a distance considered too far by their respective football federations. Today’s meeting will be their first in international football.
It is a true David and Goliath battle. Iceland’s population is less than half a million. A whopping 22% are estimated to be in Russia for the World Cup to watch their team of tattooed Vikings look to upset the odds. If you have invasion plans, now is the time.
Iceland is the least-populated nation to feature at a World Cup. Former holders of that honour Trinidad and Tobago boast more than four times as many souls as the remote Scandinavians. The Soca warriors went out of the 2006 finals with one draw from three games and no goals.
Argentina need no introduction as giants of the competition. The South Americans are twice champions and three-times-beaten finalists, including in Brazil in 2014.
The country is 40 million strong but La Albiceleste's supporters may be outnumbered in Russia. For all that, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Iceland have proven in recent years that they are a dog filled with fight.
FIFA Ranking: 5th
Argentina are undoubtedly the favourites to win this match. Many are backing them to go one better than 2014 and win the tournament. It's an ageing team. This could be the last chance for the country's stars to get their hands on the trophy their nation hasn’t lifted since 1986.
The four years since their extra time defeat to Germany in Rio was more than long enough for Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Kun Aguero to brood, mature, and set a renewed resolve.
The aforementioned players are all 30, as is a certain Lionel Messi. Regardless of all of the quality around him, the Barcelona man will be the focal point of Argentina’s attacks.
All eyes are on the little man in what is surely his last opportunity to emulate the great Maradona and captain his side to World Cup victory. Doubly so, following Cristiano Ronaldo's performance against Spain yesterday.
For all his mercurial brilliance, Messi is only one player. With the expectations of a rabid footballing nation on his shoulders, he will need the players around him to take the pressure off. Particularly against Iceland, who are not likely to pass up the opportunity to leave a boot in on Messi whenever they get the chance.
The role of young players like Paolo Dybala and Cristian Pavon cannot be underestimated. They must be there to offer a different option off the bench if Messi is having an off day.
If Argentina anticipates vintage Messi in every game, I fear they may be disappointed again.
FIFA Ranking: 22nd
FIFA world rankings should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, Switzerland somehow find themselves in 6th place ahead of Spain and France, teams bursting at the seams with talent who have also won four major international tournaments between them in the last 20 years. That being said, for a country of Iceland's size, and I hope I’m not overstating the point, their ranking is impressive.
They have defied the odds in recent years, fashioning themselves into everybody’s favourite underdog. Even England fans, who suffered at the hands of the Scandinavians in 2014, can’t help but admire their doggedness.
But to portray Iceland as little more than scrappy hopefuls would be doing them a disservice. They are in Russia deservedly. They topped their group in qualifying. Yes, they go into today’s game against Argentina as underdogs, but they will fancy their chances of causing another upset.
To do so they will have to silence Messi. Expect to see Kari Arnason, now in the twilight of his career and playing his club football back in his homeland, organising his charges to keep tabs on Argentina’s number 10.
Defence will be key if they are to stifle la Albiceleste. Iceland conceded only 7seven times in qualifying but in their last four friendlies they have leaked goals, shipping 11 against Mexico, Norway, Peru and Ghana.
Their best hopes for a surprise victory will be from set-pieces. The aforementioned Arnason is as handy in the opposition box as he is in his own. On the break, Gylfi Sigurdsson can make a difference if he is sufficiently recovered from a knee injury to orchestrate their attacks.
If all goes according to plan Argentina should have no problem silencing the booming claps of the Iceland supporters. They have enough firepower in their squad to put on a show, especially if Messi picks up the gauntlet thrown down by his Real Madrid rival.
On the other hand, as England know all too well, you write Iceland off at your peril. The drastic differences between these two teams could be just enough to throw Argentina's star-studded squad off kilter.