Lionel Messi and Co go up against a tiny island playing in its first World Cup but the mismatch is not as seismic it may seem to be.
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.
Here’s the talking points from the Group D opener.
CAN AGUERO GET THE BEST OUT OF MESSI?
The word from the Argentina camp is that Sergio Aguero, and not Gonzalo Higuain, will be the nominal spearhead of an attack which revolves around the one and only Lionel Messi.
While this sounds like a positive change of plan the danger is of looking at this through a Manchester City-emblazoned kaleidoscope.
Aguero is not the same player for Argentina. Go back through this year, then 2017 – yes, keep going – and you’ll eventually land on his last competitive goal for La Albiceleste … in June 2016.
Despite Argentina’s moribund attack, that record is puzzling. Aguero would seem an able foil for Messi, with quick-twitch movement in the penalty box and enough pace to run in behind and unglue some eyes off the main man.
He has yet to score a goal at a World Cup too. But what should breed hope on his third attempt is that he has not kicked a competitive ball since April after undergoing minor knee surgery. Two months to focus all his conditioning on Russia – there’s no excuse for looking leggy this time around. Messi needs his old mate to perform.
FIRST EUROPE, NOW THE WORLD FOR ICELAND
In the European qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, Iceland drummed up one win – as many as the Faroe Islands, about the only country whose population is dwarfed by their near-neighbours.
It’s taken just eight years for Iceland to kick their minnows tag into the dirt along with the reputations of nations with a much deeper pool of resources.
A project started by Lars Lagerback in 2011 is now headed by native Heimir Hallgrimsson after the Swede’s retirement in the aftermath of that glorious run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
Little has changed in the last two years. Iceland are not going to play like it’s 1970 and they’re Brazil. They are defensively compact and technically sound, with a couple of flair players in Premier League duo Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson. Alfred Finnbogason, of Augsburg, has been in fine fettle in the Bundesliga.
Iceland are surgical in the way they attack and Halgrimsson, still a part-time dentist, will be confident of applying anesthetic to an often disjointed Argentine attack.
RAW OR WELL-DONE?
In what could be Messi’s last World Cup it is almost a crime that Argentina’s build-up has been so chaotic.
Two extremely ill-advised friendlies were cancelled meaning they have played just one game, against a Haiti side ranked 104th in the world, in the last three months.
Given coach Jorge Sampaoli arrived towards the end of a qualification campaign which was nearly botched, you’d think the wisest move would be to ensure there are no hiccups along the way. Especially as Sampaoli, renowned for his high-press and extremely attacking philosophy, is having to re-engineer his tactical treatise because his players don’t fit the bill.
Or perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. There has been more time on the training pitch (though that put paid to an unfortunate Manuel Lanzini) and there’s not much evidence of Sampaoli’s declared ‘2-3-3-2’ formation in action, for better or for worse.
Undercooked – or marinated just right?
Aziz Bouhaddouz may not sleep on Friday – and if he does, he’ll be having nightmares.
The Morocco forward, brought on as a substitute as his side looked to get just their third World Cup win ever, found the back of the net – for Iran. In injury time, with the scores locked at 0-0.
It was a heartbreaking end to the game for both player and team. Morocco had been dominant, and although the game had been end-to-end, they looked much likelier to get a winning goal than Iran had.
Bouhaddouz, who plies his trade for FC St Pauli in the second tier of German football, was part of their push to find that goal, only to put the ball past his own keeper.
The 30-year-old was understandably distraught. In a group that also includes Portugal and Spain, this was a must-win game for either Iran or Morocco to stand a chance of progressing to the knockout stages, and Morocco will feel like this one was there for the taking.
To be denied a win so cruelly could derail their campaign entirely. Even a point will come as a bonus against either Portugal or Spain, and it’s much likelier that Morocco will exit the tournament with three losses.
Bouhaddouz’s own goal is unfortunately set to be the defining moment of their World Cup.
The World Cup kicked off in earnest with a Friday night thriller as Spain and Portugal shared the spoils in a six-goal classic, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s magnificent late leveller securing a fortunate point despite seeing his side outplayed for long periods.
Spain really sparkled at times and looked good value for a victory which appeared to be coming their way thanks to two goals from Diego Costa, but Ronaldo’s heroics – and a howler from David De Gea – ensured honours ended even in a fascinating contest.
Here are three key storylines from a game which produced many.
RONALDO RULES THE ROOST
Somehow, after a week which saw his opponents sack their manager the day before the World Cup and his club side appoint him, Cristiano Ronaldo still managed to do what he always does: steal the headlines.
The Portugal captain and talisman capped an action-packed performance by conjuring a magical late free-kick for his hat-trick goal, securing a point in the most dramatic fashion. He had already opened the scoring with a penalty he won himself, then netted a second which owed a lot to dreadful goalkeeping, and was constantly at the centre-piece of Portugal’s frequently threatening counter-attacks.
In truth, Portugal were fortunate to escape with a point after being completely dominated for long periods, and Spain will be hugely frustrated they weren’t able to escape their shocking week with a deserved and confidence boosting victory.
But with Cristiano Ronaldo on the field, anything is possible. And if he keeps up this kind of form maybe Portugal really can complete a remarkable Euros and World Cup double.
DE GEA ON BORROWED TIME?
David De Gea’s shocking mistake for Ronaldo’s second goal was the second similar error committed by the Manchester United man in the space of less than a fortnight – he also spilled an easy shot during the warm-up friendly against Switzerland, giving Ricardo Rodriguez an easy goal.
Once was forgivable, but twice? Committing two similar errors in such a short space of time is extremely concerning, and emergency boss Fernando Hierro must now be seriously considering taking a step which would have seemed unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago: dropping De Gea.
The problem for the 27 year-old is surely one of concentration, deriving from the fact that playing in goal for Spain is a very different proposition than doing so for Manchester United. With the former, his team habitually enjoys long passages of possession in the opposition half, meaning the ball is 50 or 60 yards away from the goalkeeper, who can consequently go ‘cold’ and lose his feeling for the game.
That certainly appeared to be the case on this occasion, with De Gea not having any meaningful work to do for at least a quarter of an hour before he was caught out by Ronaldo’s daisy cutter. Dropping him now might seem drastic, but leaving him in would be a risk.
COSTA ANSWERS THE CRITICS
Diego Costa’s place in Spain’s starting line-up was the biggest topic of debate for Spain before the game, with the Atletico Madrid man doing little in the majority of his previous international outings to suggest that he should be selected ahead of Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno.
But the former Chelsea man hit back in inimitable style with a brilliant goal for Spain’s first-half equaliser, which started with a quintessential Costa moment as he barged Pepe off the ball – fortunate not to be whistled for a free-kick – and then delivered a finish of genuine quality as he twisted and turned into space to crunch home a fierce low strike.
Costa later levelled again with a poacher’s strike early in the second half, getting in the right position to bundle over the line from close range, and he led the line with poise and power all night. If this game proved one thing for Spain it that their striker debate is over.