The love story of the 2016 European Championships. The nation every neutral rooted for. The proud owners of the now famous ‘thunder clap,’ which is bound to make an appearance at the World Cup.
Drawn against Nigeria, Argentina and Croatia, there’s a tangible sense of mystery to Group C, with any one of the four nations in with a chance of topping the group.
Hoping to get their campaign off to the best possible start, the heroes of two years ago face Argentina, the nation ranked fifth in the world.
Iceland manager Heimir Hallgrimsson, however, won’t be fooled by FIFA’s rankings and will be consistently drilling the mantra of ‘every game is winnable’ into his players prior to kickoff on Saturday.
Argentina, themselves, ambled into the World Cup, needing a Lionel Messi hat-trick to send them to Russia and they’re far from the world beaters many expect them to be. With the pressure on Messi to deliver once more, Argentina a nation ripe for exploitation in other areas of the pitch.
Last Time Out
Argentina 4-0 Haiti [International Friendly]
La Albiceleste waved goodbye to their home fans in perfect style with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Haiti, courtesy of a hat trick from key man Lionel Messi.
Messi opened the scoring with a 17th minute penalty, before adding two more after the break at La Bombonera, Boca Juniors’ stadium in Buenos Aires.
The Barcelona forward also assisted Sergio Aguero for the fourth, who started the game on the bench after recovering from a slight knee injury.
The result, Messi said, allows Argentina to “go to Russia with hope,” and an outside chance of winning the World Cup.
Iceland 2-2 Ghana [International Friendly]
A late equaliser from Atletico Madrid central midfielder Thomas Partey saw Iceland head off to Russia on a disappointing note, after drawing against Ghana.
Iceland went two goals ahead in the first half -through Kari Arnason’s header from a corner and Alfred Finnbogason’s effort from Gylfi Sigurdsson’s parried effort-, but capitulated after the break and allowed Ghana a way back into the game.
Kasim Nuhu halved the deficit after 66 minutes, before Partey completed the comeback three minutes from time, dealing a blow to Hallgrimsson’s preparations.
Enzo Perez was called up to replace the injured Manuel Lanzini, whilst Ever Banega has been training apart from the rest of the squad, which means he’s expected to miss the opener against Iceland.
The two areas of uncertainty are in defence, with debate between Marcos Rojo and Federico Fazio at centre back, as well Gabriel Mercado and Eduardo Salvio at right back.
Jorge Sampaoli has been tactically inconsistent, opting to experiment with a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 and variations of three-man defences. However, he’s expected to deploy a tried and tested 4-2-3-1 to avoid risk.
Argentina have an array of attacking talent, which means the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Boca Juniors star Cristian Pavon confined to roles from the bench. The same goes for Giovani Lo Celso, with Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia preferred.
Manager Hallgrimsson will stick with the 4-4-2 that has proven so effective in the past, relying on organisation, defensive nous and counter-attacking football to put the sword to a weak-looking Argentine back four.
Gylfi Sigurdsson was back in action in Iceland’s pre-World Cup friendlies, with the Everton playmaker expected to partner Augsburg’s Alfred Finnbogason up front.
Key Battle: Javier Mascherano (Argentina) vs Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland)
Everton forward Gylfi Sigurdsson didn’t have the best of seasons following his £40 million move from Swansea City, scoring four goals and assisting three whilst spending some time on the sidelines.
Spending March, April and May out injured, Sigurdsson only recently returned to Iceland’s starting XI, but made his presence known with a goal on his return against Norway at the beginning of the month. Nonetheless, he’s a vital figure for the national side.
Hallgrimsson uses a 4-4-2 formation with Sigurdsson played up front, but the onus is on the playmaker to drop between the lines and get on the ball frequently to create chances and exert his influence on the game.
In doing so, he should target Javier Mascherano. Now 34, the Argentine made just seven La Liga appearances for Barcelona with his best years now behind him. Sampaoli still persists with him over Giovani Lo Celso in the middle, and Sigurdsson should target the midfielder and look to take advantage of his lack of legs and, thus, mobility.
If Sigurdsson gets in behind an ageing Mascherano, he’s faced with a notably weak defence there for the taking.
A different way of attacking
Iceland aren’t a nation stocked with an endless supply of talent, but they do fairly well given their size, producing players such as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogason. Naturally, Sigurdsson is the key and his teammates will frequently look to get the ball to his feet, but there are other means of attacking.
Particularly against Argentina, Hallgrimsson should be smart and look to exploit their right flank. Defence is a commonly accepted weakness for a top-heavy Argentina side, but within that, right back is specifically poor.
In Gudmundsson, one of Burnley’s star players as they finished seventh in the Premier League, Iceland have a fantastic early crosser of the ball, a winger that made 1.8 crosses and 1.9 key passes per game, as well as assisting eight goals.
Moreover, Gudmundsson is used to playing as a defensive winger in Burnley’s 4-4-2, one accustomed to early crossing.
Couple that with Finnbogason -who netted 12 goals in the Bundesliga and won 0.8 aerial duels per game- and this is a recipe for offensive success.
It’s going to get Messi
Whilst Iceland are typically a sturdy side with a strong defensive foundation, shown by their record of conceding seven goals in ten qualification games, there wasn’t a player even close to Messi’s calibre in their group.
Sampaoli relies on the Barcelona forward for a reason; he’s phenomenal.
Despite a wealth of attacking talent, Gonzalo Higuain tends to go missing in higher profile games and a majority of the goal scoring burden tends to fall on Messi’s shoulders, as he’s expected to carry them through games. Such was the case in their qualification playoff, in which Messi scored a hat-trick.
There isn’t a standout name in the Icelandic defence, moreover, and they’re going to struggle to keep Messi at bay. He’s unpredictable and plays with freedom for the national team, often starting wide and drifting inside or vice versa.
Where he pops up is anyone’s guess.
Prediction: Argentina 3-1 Iceland
Iceland have grown into a solid international side since their Euro 2016 heroics and won’t simply roll over for the Argentines.
Don’t expect the game of the century, rather a cagey affair, with Iceland looking to attack through Gudmundsson, Sigurdsson and Finnbogason and keep a poor defence on their toes.
Iceland have the capacity to hold Argentina and a draw is certainly feasible, though Sampaoli has the Messi effect in his locker and, well, anything’s possible with one of the greatest ever.
Messi to do what he does and ensure an opening game victory.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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