World Cup 2018: Argentina vs Iceland: Key Battles
A game of two teams about whom many people are uncertain, Argentina and Iceland do battle on Saturday in the first fixture in Group D.
Iceland might boast a population a tenth of the size of Buenos Aires’ but only one of those places is bursting with anticipation ahead of the opening fixture in Group D.
Jorge Sampaoli’s men line out against Iceland in Moscow on the 16th June, hoping to offset those whose obituaries have already been penned ahead of the tournament kicking off.
In the four years since the Albiceleste appeared in the World Cup final in Brazil, there hasn’t been much in the line of progression.
A loss on penalties to Chile in the final of the Copa America Centenario and a new coach later, they now head to Russia with little in the way of firm expectations.
If Argentina are to quieten the chorus of non-believers, they must win the following key battles.
Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina) vs Alfred Finnbogason (Iceland)
Nicolas Otamendi enjoyed arguably his most solid campaign this year, proving central as Pep Guardiola’s side romped to the Premier League title.
The Manchester City man is decisive and brash but he is routinely caught under high balls and remains vulnerable against pacy attackers on the turn.
On paper, Alfred Finnbogason plays straight into his hands. The Augsburg forward has enjoyed a productive year in Bundesliga, notching a handful of hat-tricks as he reached double figures in the season just past.
He is gangly and opportunistic, but he lacks the pace to worry Otamendi unduly. Give him a sniff of space, however, and he’ll bury you.
Javier Mascherano (Argentina) vs Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland)
One of the elder statesmen of the Argentina squad, Javier Mascherano finds himself starting on Saturday following Ever Banega’s recent injury.
Having spent the season in China, there will be questions asked about his ability to perform at the highest level. However, there can be little doubt that the former Barcelona man has the experience to make the difference in the match.
Mascherano also saw out his time at Camp Nou playing in the middle of a back four. The Argentinian fans will be hoping he has remembered how to play in the middle of the park.
Gylfi Sigurdsson is a more vertical threat with a penchant for extravagant set-pieces and a terrific vision that makes him Iceland’s most dangerous player.
A disastrous campaign with Everton may have allowed some doubts to creep in but he will nevertheless be central if the Vikings hope to snatch anything from this game.
If either of these players are allowed to dictate matters, they could prove decisive.
Eduardo Salvio (Argentina) vs Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Iceland)
Argentina’s most glaring weakness is at goalkeeper but the right-back slot looks similarly fraught.
With Gabriel Mercado failing to convince, a starting berth is likely to be granted to Eduardo Salvio, who played in the recent 4-0 demolition of Haiti.
Most commentators would have expected the Benfica man to have departed Portugal by now but he remains a crucial part of the set-up at the Estadio da Luz.
He is committed and militant on the right-wing but he might be vulnerable against Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s crafty left foot.
After a wonderful year with Burnley, the Icelander has been linked with a shock move to Milan.
His immediate focus will be on navigating a course through Group D, however, and the 27-year-old could have a crucial role to play.
His deliveries are accurate but it is his work-rate and dependability that could prove most vital for Iceland’s chances.
Gudmundsson will be tasked not only with troubling Salvio defensively but making sure he has little time and space offensively too.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.