A few years ago, it would have been a giant mismatch. The Lionel Messi-led two-time champions Argentina have produced some of the World Cup’s greatest moments over the decades, while Iceland have nothing to show for in terms of history in this tournament.
However, when the teams face off in their campaign-opener at the Spartak Stadium here on Saturday, Iceland are expected to offer more than just a fight to their famous opponents.
For Argentina, four years after losing the World Cup final to Germany, the 2018 edition represents a shot at ending the country’s 32-year-old wait for the title.
With Messi days away from his 31st birthday, Russia could be his last stand for La Albiceleste at the World Cup. Coach Jorge Sampaoli, however, sought to downplay the pressure on his star man on the eve of Argentina’s opener.
“He isn’t under pressure. He shouldn’t be under pressure in any case. He is a player who makes people very happy with his game. I don’t think this will be Messi’s last World Cup. Given the way he plays, it is him who will decide whether it’s his last World Cup,” he said, at his pre-match press conference here on Friday.
Despite a patchy qualifying campaign and having played just one international friendly in the last two months, Sampaoli exuded confidence that the issues plaguing his side have been addressed in the last few days of preparation.
“In this period we have had the chance to strengthen the things that we couldn’t do before because we weren’t training together,” he said.
Asked about his starting XI for Saturday’s game, Sampaoli surprisingly didn’t hide the names in his line-up. Willy Caballero, Eduardo Salvio, Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Tagliafico, Maximiliano Meza, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia, Angel di Maria, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero would start, he said.
The team had been training with this XI for some time and there was no point in hiding the line-up, he explained.
“You have to see when or what matches Messi and (Paulo) Dybala can play together, we are in that search.”
“You can’t but love Iceland”
Earlier in the day, Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who works as a dentist back home during his time away from football, had an entertaining press conference as he had a few jovial exchanges with the press.
“To save questions again: I’m still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist,” he began.
“You can’t but love Iceland. We haven’t attacked anyone. We haven’t been at war with anyone. We’ve only had the cod wars with England but no one got hurt there,” he quipped, referring to the marine disputes between Iceland and UK over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.
Terming Saturday’s clash as ‘the biggest game in history of Icelandic football’, he said: “We play a different style of football but we have shown that if you have play as a unit, anything is possible. If someone is surprised, then they don’t know much about Iceland.”
With Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson spearheading the side’s campaign, Iceland are a side without many star names. However, after an impressive Euro 2016 campaign and having won their World Cup qualifying group, they will be quietly confident going into this campaign.
Against Argentina, Iceland will need a special performance to pull off a result; most importantly, a strong defensive showing.
Hallgrimsson, however, clarified that no single player from his team would be marking Messi. It would be unfair on the defender, he said.