The Spartak Moscow Arena turned into a theatre of dreams for World Cup debutants Iceland when they held two-time champions Argentina to a 1-1 draw. After a pulsating encounter it was Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson who stood like a Spartak gladiator-- a 25-meter monument on a vast football in front of Russia’s most successful football club’s home ground – following that monumental penalty save against Lionel Messi.
Messi drove a low left-footer from the spot that Halldorsson judged perfectly and fisted it away, depriving Argentina a winning start. Apart from that crucial second-half save, Halldorsson also denied the Barcelona star in the first half when he parried Messi’s swerving left-footer diving to his right. Messi, desperately looking for a World Cup title after two abortive attempts, got one last chance to win the game late. But his 35-yard free-kick, which was the last shot of the game, bounced off that water-tight Ice Dragon wall.
Before the start of the game the Argentina fans dominated the 45,000-capacity dome with deafening roar. It got extra gear when their living legend Diego Maradona, who was watching the game from the VIP box, appeared briefly in the balcony sporting red sunglasses and joined the chorus. But after match they left silently, leaving a small yet noticeable Iceland fan-group in blue to sink in a result, which was more than a draw for them. And it was not a fluke for a team that made it to the Euro quarterfinals at the expense of England two years ago.
Kun Aguero gave Argentina a 19th-minute lead with a spectacular left-footer. The Manchester City striker’s first World Cup goal lasted only four minutes before Alfred Finnbogosan cashed in on from sloppy Argentine defending, slotting home with a cool placing.
Argentina might have enjoyed the territorial dominance, but it was the Iceland team that looked more menacing when they broke forward. They looked solid while defending, hardly allowing Messi to create any space. They attacked like hounds and created a lot of trouble for a disjointed Argentina defence with a shaky Willy Caballero under the bar.
And apart from an ageless Javier Mascherano, the four men behind him struggled to cope up with a fast counter-attacking Iceland who were very good in the air.
Watching the horror defending of Jorge Sampaoli’s charges, one curious fan aptly quipped that it was defence ‘wearing an unstitched lungi and could be embarrassed any time’. Argentina defence has always been a concern in their qualifying campaign.
They just looked like a one-man team with Angel di Maria painfully short of ideas down the other flank. Messi was heavily marked in the game, which was understandable. They needed more variety in the attack. Argentina will play their next game against Croatia on Thursday. They can ill-afford another draw, a result which may put their World Cup hopes on the line.
Messi had a tough day and specially after his rival for golden boot Cristiano Ronaldo’s hattrick for Portugal in the previous night. Messi led Argentina to a warm-up session 30 minutes before the start of the kick-off.
Interestingly, he took three consecutive shots at goal during training. The first one just missed the mark. The second one was blocked by the goalkeeper. He scored from the rebound, the only difference was that was practice and nobody was blocking his way. Almost identical. But we all know Messi is from a different planet. He can produce magic that others can only envy. Hopefully for the Argentine fans he will come to the party with all his magic against Croatia.