Lionel Messi and Co go up against a tiny island playing in its first World Cup but the mismatch is not so seismic as it may seem.
Two-time winners Argentina had their struggles during qualification and Iceland, England’s conquerors at Euro 2016, rode the crest of a golden wave to earn their rightful place at the game’s greatest competition.
Below, we take a look at some of the players to watch out for from top to bottom.
LIONEL MESSI v GYLFI SIGURDSSON
Messi is the skeleton key of all key players – not just because of his otherworldly talents, but the fact that his supporting cast with Argentina is distinctly average.
Much like at Barcelona, Messi is given free rein at international level – coach Jorge Sampaoli has admitted as much that this is his team – yet there is no Sergio Busquets to expertly recycle possession, nor a tigerish Luis Suarez to keep defences that little more watchful.
Don’t be surprised to see Messi take the ball from defence in an effort to jump-start an attack. If Sampaoli can thread together a semblance of a system that unleashes him in space and masks a lack of pace in defence, Argentina will contend. It’s a big if.
As for Iceland, Gylfi Sigurdsson is by far the most creative outlet from a tiny nation that holds just 400,000 inhabitants and every one of those souls will be crossing their fingers over his fitness.
The 28-year-old has been working up to eight hours a day to ensure he’ll be ready to take on Messi and the rest of La Albiceleste after a knee injury with Everton back in March threatened to end his World Cup campaign before it even started.
At his best – and he hasn’t been in his first season at Goodison Park – Sigurdsson has a special eye for a pass and a penchant for the spectacular goal, be it with the dead or live ball. He’ll play in the hole behind Alfred Finnbogason and threaten a cumbersome Argentina defence.
JAVIER MASCHERANO v ARON GUNNARSSON
That a long-in-the-tooth Javier Mascherano is still anchoring Argentina all these years later speaks for how threadbare this squad truly is.
That’s not to besmirch Mascherano’s legacy, as he prepares for an astonishing 144th cap against Iceland, but expecting a 34-year-old who now plays for Hebei China Fortune to shield an already ponderous defence is just asking for trouble.
With his physical powers on the wane Mascherano must rely more on his intelligence than the hounding he has given so many an opposing attacker in his career, especially as he operates back in midfield after evolving into a centre-back during his Barcelona days.
Aron Gunnarsson will be jostling with Mascherano for midfield supremacy and his tenacity is emblematic of all that has gone so right for Iceland.
Those ice-blue eyes are enough to pierce the hardiest of souls for starters. And that’s what you get with Gunnarsson – full-blooded intensity, tackling that leaves a mental if not physical mark on the opposition, and a leader that the rest of the side rally around.
Whether that’ll be enough to disrupt Argentina’s prettiest passers is questionable. Gunnarsson, 29, was in and out of the team for Cardiff City during their promotion campaign into the Premier League as injuries took their toll.
NICOLAS OTAMENDI v KARI ARNASON
Nicolas Otamendi was a man transformed under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City last season, imbued with a belief and willingness to take calculated risks with and without the ball.
Sampaoli would love to do the same with him at Argentina, but Otamendi’s ball skills sadly do not look the part without the necessary full-backs to tuck in and help him out – both in defence and attack.
The centre-back’s job will be to keep it simple and feed the ball into the next ‘level’ of Sampaoli’s 2-3-3-2 system – Mascherano and two wing-backs.
If all goes well on that front he should flourish against an Iceland unit that is not blessed with pace but relishes a physical confrontation. Look for him to wage a fierce battle in set-pieces.
The word on the Moscow streets is that Sergio Aguero has been preferred up front to Gonzalo Higuain and that may have something to do with an aging Icelend defence.
Kari Arnason has had many fine moments in an Iceland jersey – not least keeping Cristiano Ronaldo shtum in the group-stage draw with Portugal at Euro 2016.
The 35-year-old may well have a few memorable performances left in him yet, but a fit-again Aguero could give his ankles some worry if he’s having to contend with the quicksilver Messi at the same time.
Watch out for him up the other end of the pitch, too – he scored twice in the qualification stage and most recently in a friendly draw with Ghana.
However, Egypt did not want to take any unnecessary risks with his fitness from the start for the Group A clash at the Ekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg.
Friday does not only mark Salah’s eagerly-awaited and potential comeback to the pitch, it is also his birthday – with the Kop star turning 26.
Earlier in the day, he wished Eid Mubarak to his legion of followers on social media.
— Egypt National Football Team (@Pharaohs) June 15, 2018
كل عام والجميع بخير وعيد سعيد علينا جميعًا…
— Mohamed Salah (@MoSalah) June 15, 2018
Critics will say both teams are vying for second place behind La Albiceleste, a position the Super Eagles occupied behind the might South Americans as they qualified for the knockout stages four years ago in Brazil.
Croatia, meanwhile, will be desperate to make the knockouts for the first time since finishing third on debut in 1998.
Here, we look at some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter.
A MODIFIED BUT STILL MAGICAL MODRIC
After a trophy-laden three-year spell in charge of the Boss, Dalic was named Croatia chief in October 2017, with one of his boldest moves becoming arguably his greatest feat to date – transforming lynchpin Luka Modric’s role.
The Modric-Ivan Rakitic conundrum had proved a major stumbling block for Dalic’s predecessors, who struggled to harness both stars’ playmaking skills coherently at national team level.
It is a luxury for Croatia to have two of Europe’s most talented creative midfielders at their disposal, but as England managers found to their frustration with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, being blessed with brilliance in a certain department doesn’t mean instant success is sure to follow.
Dalic made a significant change immediately after taking over – just two days before the deciding group game in the qualifiers against Ukraine on October 9, 2017 – moving Real Madrid magician Modric to the No 10 position, a role he had rarely occupied since his early career.
Rakitic kept his place in one of the two anchor roles in the 4-2-3-1 formation and the move paid off handsomely and immediately.
Both contributed assists for Andrej Kramaric in a 2-0 win, while Modric was on the scoresheet a month later in a 4-1 thrashing of Greece – with a 0-0 draw days later in Piraeus securing passage to Russia. It was just Dalic’s third game in charge. Easy this coaching malarkey, isn’t it Zlatko?
KENNETH IS NUMERO OMERUO
Coach Gernot Rohr has already seen the Super Eagles’ wings clipped before a ball has even been kicked with the news starting centre-back Leon Balogun is a major doubt for the Croatia game after failing to train with the rest of the Nigeria squad on Thursday.
The Brighton and Hove Albion defender went for a scan with the results as yet unknown.
Chelsea has been styled in quotation marks because Omeruo is billed as a Blues player and is still on the Stamford Bridge club’s books – despite not making a single appearance for the west Londoners since signing from Standard Liege in 2012.
He is one of the myriad young talents hoarded by the club under Roman Abramovich’s ownership, yet whose talent is honed elsewhere – with Omeruo plying his trade on loan over the last five seasons at Ado Den Haag, Middlesbrough and for the last three seasons in Turkey.
His likely withdrawal is a bitter blow for Berlin-born Balogun who missed the 2014 World Cup after breaking his foot on debut three months prior to the tournament, colliding with advertising signs on the side of the pitch in a friendly against Mexico.
Since his return he has been first choice. However, despite the distraction, Rohr will feel he has an able replacement in Omeruo who has won 20 more caps (39) than Balogun despite being four years his junior.
He is also a better passer than the Mainz man, with an 81.2 per cent pass completion rate in 28 games for Kasimpasa this season bettering Balogun’s 75.2 in 14 Bundesliga appearances.
Omeruo’s 7.3 clearances per game is also eye-catching compared to Balogun’s 4.4.
FORM A CONCERN FOR BOTH MANAGERS
Since qualifying for the World Cup, both Dalic and Rohr will be far from roaring with pride at the performances of their sides in games leading up to the tournament.
Vatreni (The Blazers) have been very businesslike under Dalic early on, but were sloppy in defeat to Peru in March and thoroughly outclassed by Brazil, while they needed late goals to edge past fellow World Cup participants Senegal 2-1 in their final warm-up game on June 8.
They have also worryingly kept just two clean sheets in their last 11 games. And while they blossom with guile and steel in attack, they often leave themselves exposed at the back – with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren hardly a defensive colossus.
Veteran centre-back Vedran Corluka, meanwhile, somehow remains a stalwart at international level.
Rohr will feel that his young squad, boasting plenty of pace and trickery in attack – Oghenekaro Etebo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi – can create and take chances in this clash.
Croatia do of course have their own star-studded attack, with Ivan Perisic, despite some off-colour performances in recent games, carrying a goal threat and likely to start with the talented young duo of Ante Rebic and Marko Pjaca available from the bench.
Strikers Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic are likely to swap positions in attack, meaning the centre-forward position is either occupied by a robust striker (Mandzukic) or a more flexible attacker (Kramaric).
Although Rohr has flirted with different formations – including a 3-5-2 used in November’s excellent 4-2 win over Argentina – it is clear he will opt for his trusted 4-2-3-1, which is based on defensive resilience and efficient counters.